Ferraro and Obama Revisited
That Geraldine Ferraro has resigned her position with the Clinton campaign over the seemingly innocuous assertion that Barack Obama benefits from being black and that Hillary Clinton has apologized to black journalists over the incident is not surprising. Whatever the merits of the remarks, race is a sufficiently hot button in American public life that prudence generally dictates silence. As Dave Schuler put it on OTB Radio last night, it’s a Reverse Voltaire: I may agree with what you have to say but will beat you to death for saying it.
Before putting the incident behind us, though, I would like to address posts by two my favorite left-of-center bloggers.
Kevin Drum observes that,
Implicit in Ferraro’s statement is the idea that if Obama were a charismatic young white guy, there’s no way he’d be getting any attention. And that’s just plain crackers. Charismatic young John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. His brother, charismatic young Robert F. Kennedy, attracted huge support in 1968 and might have become president as well if he hadn’t been assassinated. Charismatic young Gary Hart nearly stole the 1984 Democratic nomination from Walter Mondale. And charismatic young Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
But John Kennedy was a war hero and Pulitizer Prize-winning author with a dozen years experience in Congress. Robert Kennedy was, well, the brother of a martyred young president. Gary Hart had nine years in the Senate in 1984 and didn’t steal the nomination from Mondale, an awful candidate. Bill Clinton had been governor of Arkansas for twelve years and president of the National Governor’s Association.
RFK, then, is the only one of the examples who are even close to Obama in lack of experience. And, surely, the statement that, “If RFK weren’t the brother of a slain president, he would not be in this position” would not have created a scandal and forced resignation of a prominent party elder.
Ezra Klein goes existential on us:
But in a weird way, there’s much less to this comment than meets the eye. After all, Obama is not a woman, nor a white man. He’s who he is. To say that if he were different, things would be different is to say nothing at all. As a white woman, maybe he would have led a military coup and established himself dictator. Who knows!? Hell, if he were a slightly less inspiring speaker, or had an off-night at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he wouldn’t be in this position either. Similarly, if Hillary Clinton were a black man, it’s unlikely that she would have been a national political figure for the past 15 years, as it’s unlikely that she would have married another man from Arkansas, and unlikely that the country would have put an interracial, same sex couple in the White House. But so what? This is an election, not Marvel’s “What If?” series.
On one level, this is right. To the extent Obama’s skin color is an advantage, it’s barely more noteworthy than the fact that having a full head of hair, a pleasant speaking voice, and being tall have helped him.
But counterfactuals can be an excellent way of unraveling things and getting to the truth. Two obvious examples:
- (Said in 2000:) “Would we seriously be considering George W. Bush as our next president if he weren’t the son of a president?”
- “Would we seriously be considering Hillary Clinton as our next president if she weren’t the wife of a president?”
Of course, Bush was the son of a president and Clinton the wife of one. But isn’t it valuable to carry out the thought experiment? It’s a very useful way of thinking about whether candidates are qualified.