Ferraro, Limbaugh, and Racial Politics

Ferraro, Limbaugh, and Racial Politics Geraldine Ferraro has generated an amazing amount of controversy with her remarks that, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” And, no, it wasn’t for her improper use of the subjunctive but rather because it’s “racist.”

I’d ignored the controversy until now because, well, it’s Geraldine Ferraro. (About whom, incidentally, it could reasonably have been said, when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate twenty-four years ago, “If she were a man, she would not be in this position.”) I haven’t paid much attention to her since her ticket lost 49 states.

Andrew Sullivan, however, drew an analogy that sparked my interest: Rush Limbaugh’s comments five years ago about Donovan McNabb.

I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Limbaugh said. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”

Limbaugh was widely excoriated including, as Sullivan points out, by Wes Clark and several other Democrats running for president at the time. Sullivan asks, reasonably enough, why “Rush Limbaugh [is] now held to a higher standard than Geraldine Ferraro?” I agree that the comments are quite similar. And I’d argue that neither are “racist” in any meaningful sense.

Limbaugh was wrong, I think, about McNabb. He was, by any measure, among the top quarterbacks in the league and was hampered by a sub-par receiving corps. Further, by 2003, there had been so many excellent black QBs (along with plenty of mediocre ones) that the need for a poster boy was gone. It was, however, a discussion that could have been had.

Ferraro, by contrast, was almost certainly right in her initial comments. (I agree with Steve Benen, though, that her subsequent defense has been “completely over the edge.”) John Cole snarks,

It appears that the legacy of slavery and years of segregation, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, anti-miscegenation laws, have all worked to propel black men to the Presidency. That is why we have had so many black Presidents. Basically, we have made it too easy for a black man to become President, because they can just glide to the Presidency. Something needs to be done to help the whte man out, since it has been so long since we have had a white President.

But that’s a straw man, if an amusing one. Ferraro’s essentially saying what Joe Biden did with his infamous “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” comment. Huge numbers of white Americans very much want to get beyond race and be able to root for a politician of color. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and others who have presented themselves, though, were threatening. Obama is precisely the opposite; indeed, he’s the most soothing man with a real shot at the presidency that I can remember.

Of course Obama is benefiting from being black (or, more accurately, biracial). Can anyone imagine an unknown white state legislator making his first run for national office being asked to be the keynote speaker for a national political convention? Or being in the lead for his party’s presidential nomination after only three years in the Senate? Really?

That’s not to diminish Obama’s talents. He’s a captivating orator who’s running circles around a candidate who had all the advantages in the world. But much of his appeal is also his back story, which is inseparable from his skin color. Alex Massie has a long, thoughtful post on the matter. This excerpt, though, is particularly salient:

Obama’s candidacy also destroyed much of Clinton’s attractiveness. Yes, selecting a woman would be a historic moment. But selecting a black politician would be even more significant. The idea of a symbolic reconciliation or of some imagined historical make-up call acknowledging America’s original sin even as it sought to move, at long last, beyond it etc etc… all that makes choosing a woman pretty small beer.


[H]e had certain advantages that would have been denied a white, first-term Senator. No-one can feel good about themselves for supporting a wealthy white man, but backing the man who might be the first black President allows folk to praise themselves for their own broad-minded generosity and sense of historical significance.

The mere fact that any allusion to race — or, to some extent, any criticism at all — can and has been painted as “racist” also redounds to Obama’s advantage. Again, this is Geraldine Ferraro we’re talking about here. Do any of her critics really think she’s a racist? Or is this just political opportunism?

Bruce McQuain hopes,

Maybe, finally, we can begin to put all this PC nonsense to bed, recognize that not every reference to race or gender involves racism or sexism. Maybe we can actually have debates and discussions about the reality of statements and opinions vs. marginalizing and muting those who may say something we disagree by using false charges.

Somehow, I doubt it.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Race and Politics, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Can anyone imagine an unknown white state legislator making his first run for national office being asked to be the keynote speaker for a national political convention? Or being in the lead for his party’s presidential nomination after only three years in the Senate? Really?

    See Lincoln, Abraham. Who didn’t even have a Senate seat–he lost that race. No, just a lowly House Rep, he was.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:
  3. Ugh says:

    as noted elsewhere, Exra Klein had the best response to this nonsense:

    “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.”

  4. James Joyner says:

    See Lincoln, Abraham. Who didn’t even have a Senate seat — he lost that race.

    Of course, he was the nominee of a fledgling party, running eighty years before the television era, and won in a four-way election.

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    Yeah, but Lincoln came to prominence in much the same was as Obama. Oratorical and writing skills, sure temperment, and loyalty to party.

  6. yetanotherjohn says:


    Lets look at the recent candidates (I’m going to exclude president’s and VPs because getting them to that level puts them in a whole new category).

    H. Clinton
    8 years US senate

    7 years state representative
    4 years US senate

    4 years US House
    22 years US senate

    19 years US senate

    G. W. Bush
    6 years state governor

    27 years US senate

    W. Clinton
    2 years state attorney general
    12 years state governor

    8 years state representative
    10 years state governor

    8 years state governor

    4 years state senate
    4 years state governor

    6 years US house
    8 years US senate

    So the least legislative experience to get the nod (and win) is JFK with 14 years at the national level. Executive experience seems to be higher rated (e.g. Bush and Carter).

    The bottom line is given that both H. Clinton and Obama only have legislative elected experience, whichever one gets the nod will have the least legislative elected experience in the modern era. That doesn’t disqualify them, but it does raise the question why they seem to be able to cut in line.

    For Hillary, the answer is obviously her husband. The closest that anyone has ever tried to do this is E. Dole. She had 16 years of federal executive branch experience to go with husband’s recognition (and failed to get the nod).

    For Obama, I can’t think of anyone who has risen this fast in the legislative branch at the national level. Edwards comes close (6 years US senate) but then he didn’t get the nod.

    So something is setting Obama apart. His rhetorical talents are certainly part of that. But do you really see no possibility that his race had anything to do with his faster than normal rise at the national level?

  7. bornonthefourth says:

    Interesting. Is it possible that being black and being a woman cancel each other out. Both are considered minorities.If African Americans are assimilating in the ways the Irish and Italians did in the 1900s, and their are a vast amount of women professionals , is it time to level the field. Excluding the distressed, Should blacks and women not be considered minorities?

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    B. Hussein Obama is doing well in the primaries against H. Rodham Clinton. However, considering his leftist politics, in the general he will have to answer tough questions like change what and hope for ? Change could be changing our relationship with Israel. Seems many, many of Obamas closest allies favor the Alsatians over the Israelis. This is probably not the sort of change most Americans want. How about hope that we accept Sharia law? Hope the Iranians can be talked out of their suicidal desire for nuclear weapons with which to eliminate us and the Israelis? The time for hope is over. The time for action is now.

  9. tom p says:

    can anyone say “condescension”?

    The Democratic Party has always looked at blacks as the poor sister of their party, one who had no choice but to go along, because otherwise, who is going to stand up for them?

    Condescension… that has been the underlying sentiment of every one of the “Clinton’s” “racist” remarks. It is not so much that they are “racist” (in the “Strom Thurmond” sense of the word) but racist in the “it took a PRESIDENT to get it done” thereby implying (without ever saying it) that a black man could never be President.

    Geraldine Ferraro is another closet racist posing as a “progressive” (like so many others I have known) (Hey… it feels GOOD to vote for the black man) But let one uppity N***A have the gall to actually run for the most powerful position in American politics(and be winning)… And, well, “He would not be here if he wasn’t black.” (c’mon guys…. When was the last time a black man had the upper hand? Go to court some bored evening… and see who goes to jail, and who not… for the same offenses)

    As though Hillary wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t had the foresight to be married to a serial philanderer?

    Say what you want about Barack Obama (Yes, his “blackness” has played a role…. (I wonder why nobody has mentioned his “whiteness”)(the fact that this is ignored only shows how “racist” America remains) and his positions.

    He is where he is, because of who he is. No more, no less. That is America, is it not? Once upon a time, I thought this was a conservative value. Hell, I thought this was an American value.

    Maybe not.

  10. floyd says:

    What oratory?… “Yes we can!”??… Heck, he stole that line from Builder Bob![lol]
    If Oratorical and writing skills, sure temperament, and loyalty were prerequisites to prominence then Alan Keyes would be finishing his second term about now.

  11. Mike P says:

    I think Kevin Drum hit the “but what if he was a white guy” thing pretty well here:
    Obama’s Luck

    Ferraro was also running around in ’88 saying virtually the exact same thing about Jesse Jackson:
    Ferraro Flashback

    Interesting stuff, that.

  12. Mike P says:

    And Josh Marshall made a good point about this too…being black has probably helped some, but it’s hurt just as much (if not more). Look at the increasingly depressing (from my point of view) exit polling from Ohio and Mississippi…the racial breakdown in the voting is gigantic, with Obama winning something like 90% of the black vote and Clinton getting something in the low to mid 70’s (in Miss.). That’s not a good sign (for Democrats or the country).

  13. DL says:

    Limbaugh was wrong about McNabe’s ability perhaps, but that wasn’t the question. The question is whether there are racial politics entwined in all public walks of life and on that score Limbaugh and Ferraro are both right.

    The reason there is no discussion on this issue is that it has been put off limits (censored through the intimidation weapon called PC))by those very folks that want to keep the black community down -liberal Democrats and black race baiters who all gain power while the community suffers real damage with the destruction of their families and their culture by the big government providers.

  14. Bithead says:

    Race alone, isn’t the issue, here.

    You knew the race card was gonna get played, and you knew who by. But is Ferraro’s comment off base?
    Think on it now; Postulate a white Candidate with Obama’s stated list of qualifications, in either party. Would such a person be a front running in the race now, were they not a person of color?

    Which is not to say that Hillary Clinton is not similar in her being under-qualified for the position she now has, much less the one she seeks. She’s in the position she’s in because of the gender factor. And yes, because she’s merely a proxy for her erstwhile husband…. a point which the feminst left is lothe to admit even to itself.

    In the end, what we have here is two intractable forces, looking for any excuse they can to take offense at the other, and willing to play the race card, or the sexist card, as needed. Welcome to the Democratic party of today. It’s like I said elsewhere recently;

    Identity politics is of course, by its very nature, racist, sexist, etc. The real fun comes from watching its adherents try to avoid that basic fact.

    Certainly, identity politics is at the center of what the Democrat party is all about. Oh… and as I say, it’s not all about sex or race… they do have to have a certain mindset… they’d not be interested in Shelby Steele, or Condi Rice. I guess they’re just racist, huh? Or maybe this is simply a way to keep your opponant on the defensive?

  15. Elmo says:

    Can o worms ….. I remember at least one post/blog over the last week, showing Obama’s racial/ethnic breakdown, by percentage. As in an eighth or less. Still not really any area of interest or discussion for me. Though the leftwingnut media is trying to get some mileage out of injecting controversy about race, into the contest.

    And G*d Please help us all if we ever have to bear witness to another Keith Olbermann on air self immolation. His yesterday whiney lil girl cryfest, over Hillary’s ‘inaction’ (regards Geraldine). Was scarily painful. Truly some nasty video there folks [proof of a parallel universe (Private Idaho) increases by the day].

    Ferraro? Sh*t, back in the day, when still a sapling lib. And had just voted for her for Veep. Was actually a little bit miffed, that one week after the election. Was subjected to her peddling Pepsi on the tube.