Racism Under Every Barack

Matt Yglesias argues, persuasively, that John McCain’s “biography tour” is a strange campaign strategy, especially given that the candidate with the more impressive military background has lost almost* every presidential election since 1960. He then goes off on a tangent:

What I’ll say on behalf of this strategy is that it’s the best way I can think of to try to take advantage of older people’s potential discomfort with the idea of a woman or a black man in the White House that doesn’t involve exploiting racism or sexism in a discreditable way.

Surely, everything isn’t about race and gender?

It’s a fair point, I suppose, that Hillary Clinton was ineligible to serve as a fighter pilot — or even attend the Naval Academy — because of her sex and therefore missed out on the opportunity to be shot down, captured, and tortured for five-and-a-half years by the Viet Cong. To be sure, I’m skeptical she would have taken advantage of said opportunity. Regardless, there’s a convoluted sense in which there’s a gender issue at stake.

One has to really stretch to get race involved. Blacks have been attending the Service Academies since Reconstruction (Henry O. Flipper graduated West Point in 1877); have served as pilots in the United States military since the formation of the Tuskeegee Airmen in 1941, twenty years before Obama was born (and when he father was only four years old); Benjamin O. Davis made brigadier general the year before that, eventually retiring as a lieutenant (three-star) general in 1965 (Bill Clinton promoted him to four-star rank posthumously). To be sure, Obama would have had a hell of a time being the son of a son of a four-star admiral. But he could certainly have served and there are plenty of black families proud of their military heritage. Barack Obama is too young to have served in Vietnam.

Jon Henke, guesting at Megan McArdle’s place, notes this along with a more egregious case from Matt Stoler and concludes,

So that’s it, then? Democrats – whether due to paranoia or calculation – are going to see racism under every rock, and they’re going to exploit the hell out of it. This, as long as political points can be scored for it, will be our “conversation about race.” That won’t exactly help heal, ease or erase racial problems, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal of such accusations.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear the paranoia is just too deep and the temptation just too much to avoid that sort of thing. There is, of course, real racism in America and it deserves our swift public scorn…but “racist” is not a term to be thrown about lightly and without substantial evidence. Its overuse can only exacerbate real racial problems.

Indeed.

UPDATE: Steve M. weighs in in favor of MY’s position:

That’s absolutely right — McCain’s saying (without saying it) that he’s a white male whose forbears represented an overwhelmingly white and male military tradition.

But there’s much more to McCain’s emphasis on biography. A presidential candidate has to make voters able to imagine him or her as part of a ruling elite, but (usually) without appearing like a member of the dreaded yuppie-scum caste. Republicans generally accomplish this by pulling on a pair of cowboy boots and turning themselves into members of a Southern or Western leadership class in which the leaders are seen as macho wild men. (Dole, it should be noted, never did this.) Bill Clinton, the one Democrat who’s won a presidential election in recent years, didn’t wear boots, but he did drop his g’s and he loved greasy food, so we forgave him his hoity-toity education.

McCain, right now, is telling people he’s part of three non-yuppie subgroups: Southerners, old men, and the military. So he’s qualified to be a leader of the elite, but he’s not a latte-swilling yuppie elitist.

Except that McCain isn’t a Southerner, everyone agrees that being an old man is to his disadvantage, and playing up the military angle didn’t do squat for Bob Dole, John Kerry, or (in his re-election bid anyway) George H.W. Bush.

Now, I agree that being perceived as an effete yuppy is detrimental to one’s chances; it certainly hasn’t helped Hillary Clinton. But it would be ironic, indeed, if the son and grandson of admirals was able to play himself off as less privileged than a guy named “Barack Obama.” Furthermore, considering that the “regular guy” shtick has been employed by every winning presidential candidate in my lifetime — none of which involved a black man or a woman — it’s rather difficult to argue that it’s suddenly “racist” or “sexist.”

Steve Benen, meanwhile, says “[McCain] seems to be the first candidate in recent memory to make family history highly relevant to his campaign.” Except for Hillary “You Wouldn’t Even Consider Voting for Me if My Husband Hadn’t Been President” Clinton and Barack “Vote For Me and Be Absolved for Your Sins — and Send a Message to the Muslims That We Love Them” Obama, presumably.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum:

There’s no way to know what’s deep inside the man’s heart, or the hearts of his followers, but really, there’s pretty much no identity McCain could project that wouldn’t automatically also project the fact that he’s white and male. There’s no way around that, and when Kerry ran on much the same warrior-hero image as McCain nobody complained that he was engaging in identity politics that appealed to latent sexism and racism.

To be sure, he wasn’t running against a black man or a white woman. But that’s really the point: people play up the parts of their background that they think will make them more appealing to the electorate. For McCain, like Kerry and Dole before him, it’s their wartime heroism.
__________

*The qualifier is necessary because the 1976 contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford is debatable, since both had distinguished combat service, and because the 1984 race pitting Ronald Reagan against Walter Mondale featured two men who served stateside during wartime.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Gender Issues, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Matt Yglesias argues, persuasively, that John McCain’s “biography tour” is a strange campaign strategy, especially given that the candidate with the more impressive military background has lost every single presidential election since 1960.

    The difference, I suppose, is an until-recent lack of attacks in the United States.

    So that’s it, then? Democrats – whether due to paranoia or calculation – are going to see racism under every rock, and they’re going to exploit the hell out of it. This, as long as political points can be scored for it, will be our “conversation about race.”

    Give him credit, James. Jon is onto something I’ve been talking about since the OJ Simpson case. I’ve pointed it out a few times in the last few days, here, too. A liberal charging ‘racist’ seems to be used to make a number of unrelated problems disappear.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Surely, everything isn’t about race and gender?

    Going back to Saul Alinsky, if your consciousness has been raised with respect to race and gender everything is about race and gender.

  3. Hal says:

    Surely, everything isn’t about race and gender?

    Um, not to point out the obvious, but your entire post is about race and gender WRT military service. You are apparently under the impression that the argument Matt is making is somehow that race/gender actually prevented them from serving or stood in their way somehow.

    What Matt is actually saying – if I may be so bold – is that old people objectively have a higher probability with woman or people of color. To deny otherwise is to simply ignore the facts. This is a verified issue with this demographic that has been used to great advantage in the past by other campaigns. If you’re claiming otherwise, I’d really be interested in hearing the basis of your argument.

    So, by using the military track, Matt is saying that McCain is cleverly playing upon these issues without being blatantly racist or overtly bringing up gender. You seem to be arguing against something else completely, as is your wont.

    WRT Henke, let’s just remember that he was proudly on board the good ship Maccaca when it went down through self inflicted damage. I don’t recall Henke providing any “swift public scorn” over the issue – indeed, I believe he was a fully throated part of the campaign to portray “Maccaca” as something other than it obviously was, and can therefore is laughable as a reference point on this issue, seeing as how he willingly threw his credibility under the bus during ’06 as Allen’s media coordinator.

  4. Hal says:

    Whoops, the line in my comment above should read

    “is that old people objectively have a higher probability of having issues with woman or people of color”

  5. SeniorD says:

    James Earl Carter never served in combat. As a nuclear qualified Naval Officer, Carter was limited to only a few ships that, with the exception of Enterprise, never steamed off Vietnam. Of course, Carter’s abysmal showing as President showed his true feelings when the Navy:

    1. Didn’t have the fuel to get underway
    2. Had a rampaging drug problem
    3. Didn’t have enough sailors to keep ships in proper maintenance
    4. Got the USS John F. Kennedy (aka “The Can Opener”) in place of a nuclear powered carrier.

    James Earl Carter represents a significant ‘Sea Change’ in the Democrat Party vis-a-vis the military. Rather than following the likes of Roosevelt and Truman, the Democrat Party loathes the military.

  6. Hal says:

    Rather than following the likes of Roosevelt and Truman, the Democrat Party loathes the military.

    Wow. And what possible evidence do you have for that? I guess electing a draft dodger (TWICE!) and his draft dodging vice president (TWICE!) objectively shows what tremendous respect the republicans collectively have for the military.

  7. C Stanley says:

    So wait, Hal, if I understand your point correctly it’s that any candidate who courts the votes of older Americans is necessarily appealing to their bigotry and sexism? That’s a demographic group that McCain would obviously appeal to, yet he’s supposed to go out on the campaign trail and say, “Hey, please don’t vote for me if you are only doing that because my opponent will either be a black man or a white woman?”

  8. Hal says:

    Stanley,

    First, I’m not making the argument, Yeglasias is. I’m responding to the fact that James’ post doesn’t have anything to do with the substance of Yeglasias’ post, and to the fact that looking for commentary on racism from Henke is like asking him about the origin of the use of “Maccaca” as a description of hair styles.

    Second, your argument is a classic straw man. Matt’s argument – again, if I may be so bold – is that by playing up the military in the way that McCain has is the only way he could play upon such bigotry and sexism without explicitly being bigoted or sexist. Now, you can argue with the premise of that argument if you’d like, but arguing that Matt is making the argument that any candidate who courts the votes of older Americans is necessarily appealing to their bigotry and sexism is a complete bogus framing of the argument as presented.

    Nice try, but no dice. Burn the straw man if you like, seeing as how smoke from such seems to be all the rage in this argument.

  9. Pug says:

    James Earl Carter represents a significant ‘Sea Change’ in the Democrat Party vis-a-vis the military. Rather than following the likes of Roosevelt and Truman, the Democrat Party loathes the military.

    Given the way the military has been treated by the current draft dodgers in charge, it may be fair to ask if it is the Republicans, even with their jingoism and flag-waving, who are the ones who hate the military.

    Third and fourth deployments to Iraq are fine as long as you wear a flag pin and proclaim your patriotism, no?

  10. Hal says:

    Third and fourth deployments to Iraq are fine as long as you wear a flag pin and proclaim your patriotism, no?

    Not to mention sending them into a situation with absolutely no plan for the occupation and vastly undermanned for such a mission. And then there’s the whole outfitting fiasco, where by minimal armor and vehicles weren’t even on budget until the Democrats started making political hay out of the issue.

    But man, as long as you have that lapel pin and the yellow ribbon on your SUV, you’re A-OK.

  11. James Joyner says:

    What Matt is actually saying – if I may be so bold – is that old people objectively have a higher probability [of having issues]with woman or people of color.

    If that’s his argument, it’s more of a stretch than Stoler’s “dog whistle” nonsense. Courting old people on the basis of their admiration for sacrifice ain’t hardly a subtle way of making race or gender the issue. I was constructing the best possible argument I could make to make MY’s point make sense.

    WRT Henke, let’s just remember that he was proudly on board the good ship Maccaca when it went down through self inflicted damage.

    Ad hominem. What has that to do with the case he lays out against Stoler or the merits of his argument on the tendency of Democrats to play the race card to their advantage?

  12. Hal says:

    Courting old people on the basis of their admiration for sacrifice ain’t hardly a subtle way of making race or gender the issue.

    ? Matt’s argument is that it is such an argument. You haven’t addressed it, rather you’ve argued against something which isn’t his argument. Again, as is your wont. You can try to make your case on the merits of such, but arguing as you did just doesn’t make any sense wrt what he wrote.

    Ad hominem.

    Guilty as charged. Note that Ad hominem isn’t always a fallacy when the person actually is the issue as it is in this case. Henke lost all credibility on race with the Allen campaign. Full stop.

    What has that to do with the case he lays out against Stoler or the merits of his argument on the tendency of Democrats to play the race card to their advantage?

    What argument? I read his post and it’s devoid of an argument. It’s simply an assertion.

    And if you accept the premise that race is actually still an issue, then it’s hardly a disingenuous act to make race an issue in the campaign. I mean, McCain is playing the military service card – something that he’s entitled to do. He thinks military experience is an issue and he’s making it a political issue.

    Mocking the issue of race because you think it’s not an issue is a bit like me mocking the issue of military service because I think it’s a non issue – it’s not me to decide.

    If you want to argue that there is no problem with race and sexism, by all means feel free. If you want to argue that the older demographic doesn’t statistically have a lot bigger issues with race and sexism, then I think you have a hard row to hoe and by all means please make that argument.

    But to attempt to downplay the issue by asserting that the democrats are simply “playing a card” is rather silly. Race and gender issues have long defined the Democratic party platform and it’s not just a passing fad.

  13. C Stanley says:

    Second, your argument is a classic straw man. Matt’s argument – again, if I may be so bold – is that by playing up the military in the way that McCain has is the only way he could play upon such bigotry and sexism without explicitly being bigoted or sexist. Now, you can argue with the premise of that argument if you’d like

    Yes, I’d like. The premise of that argument is completely groundless. You can’t presume that someone is dog whistling because this is the only way that one COULD attract the dogs without anyone realizing that he’s attempting to attract them. There’s still absolutely no evidence that the person is deliberately courting bigots even if you think that there’s a crossover effect in that some older people are bigoted and many older people are pro-military, therefore appealing to pro-military sentiment MUST be an encoded appeal to bigotry. Sorry, the syllogism just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

  14. Bithead says:

    First, I’m not making the argument, Yeglasias is

    So, we’re not to take the noises you’re making as ones of approval?

    Mocking the issue of race because you think it’s not an issue is a bit like me mocking the issue of military service because I think it’s a non issue – it’s not me to decide.

    I don’t recall anyone mocking the issue, so much as calling the honesty of the people raising the issue into question. Seems to me James was doing the same thing, as am I.

    If you want to argue that there is no problem with race and sexism, by all means feel free. If you want to argue that the older demographic doesn’t statistically have a lot bigger issues with race and sexism, then I think you have a hard row to hoe and by all means please make that argument.

    They’re far smaller than you, and a lot of others, make them out as. The issue, then is why would these be overblown? It’s because as I’ve said earlier today in this blog, charges of racism go far in some quarters, to making a lot of unrelated ills magically go away, particularly in the realm of the political.

    CStanley’s comments bear on this as well, in that most of the disappearing act seems to utterly depend on the concept that if one is not a liberal Democrat, one must, in fact, be racist.

    Third and fourth deployments to Iraq are fine as long as you wear a flag pin and proclaim your patriotism, no?

    Pug, I love you… Tell me, how many of these re-deployments were voluntary?

  15. Hal says:

    therefore appealing to pro-military sentiment MUST be an encoded appeal to bigotry.

    Again, I’m not making the argument. But just for giggles, let’s look at what Matt actually said:

    What I’ll say on behalf of this strategy is that it’s the best way I can think of to try to take advantage of older people’s potential discomfort with the idea of a woman or a black man in the White House that doesn’t involve exploiting racism or sexism in a discreditable way.

    Again, for the record, Matt isn’t actually making the argument you claim he’s making. Again, you can argue against his actual argument or you can burn straw.

    Your choice.

  16. C Stanley says:

    Hal, OK, let me put it another way. Matt isn’t saying exactly what I said, which was:

    therefore appealing to pro-military sentiment MUST be an encoded appeal to bigotry.

    Instead, he said that this would be the best way to appeal to bigotry in code, if one wanted to do that. Is that a fair enough paraphrase?

    If so, then I’ll follow up with this:
    What I’ll say on behalf of Matt’s strategy is that it’s the best way I can think of to try to take advantage of younger, more liberal voters’ potential discomfort with the idea of a Republican candidate exploiting racism or sexism that doesn’t involve proving racism or sexism in a discreditable way.

  17. Hal says:

    Is that a fair enough paraphrase?

    Yes.

    What I’ll say on behalf of Matt’s strategy…

    And you’d be perfectly correct in that.

    Personally, the way I look at Matt’s statement is that it’s performance art. It’s doing it in precisely the same way that McCain would be doing if he were doing it. Kind of an object lesson in how’s it’s done, so to speak.

  18. Hal says:

    WRT Jame’s update:

    Except that McCain isn’t a Southerner

    Well, until recently he wasn’t Baptist, either. That didn’t stop him from claiming so when it was politically convenient for him. So it’s hardly no surprise that he’d suddenly – I don’t know – start doing southern style BBQ’s and flying the Confederate flag for all I know. After all, he’s now the evangelical’s BFF – and a Baptist!

  19. Bithead says:

    Personally, the way I look at Matt’s statement is that it’s performance art. It’s doing it in precisely the same way that McCain would be doing if he were doing it. Kind of an object lesson in how’s it’s done, so to speak.

    So, that’s not what Obama is doing?

  20. R. Alex says:

    Well, until recently he wasn’t Baptist, either. That didn’t stop him from claiming so when it was politically convenient for him.

    As I understand it, he’s been attending a Baptist church more-or-less since marrying his Baptist wife. He hasn’t formally converted, but he’s not “pretending” to be a Baptist the same way that he would have to pretend to be a southerner.

  21. Hal says:

    but he’s not “pretending” to be a Baptist the same way that he would have to pretend to be a southerner.

    I didn’t claim he was “pretending”. McCain Identifies Himself as a Baptist.

    Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who has long identified himself as an Episcopalian, said this weekend that he is a Baptist and has been for years.

    And he does this in Hilton Head, SC. For a southern audience.

    One doesn’t have to draw the lines between these dots as they draw on their own.

  22. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Hal, since when is serving in the Air National Guard considered draft dodging. By the way, how much service did William Jefferson Clinton provide this nation? I am not talking about the service he provided Monica or the nation as President, which is reality was about the same. Hal, have you seen a doctor about your BDS? I suggest a shrink, not an MD.

  23. just me says:

    What Matt is actually saying – if I may be so bold – is that old people objectively have a higher probability with woman or people of color. To deny otherwise is to simply ignore the facts.

    This is a group both McCain and Obama have to appeal to.

    If McCain thinks running on his military record is what will do it, I am not seeing the racist motivation. If this group is racist, then anything he does can be painted as racist.

    What about the things Obama does to appeal to this group?

    I do believe one thing though. If the democrats run around crying racist at every turn, a good portion of the electorate is going to be turned off-and either they will vote for McCain or somebody else, because I don’t think the US is ready for a victim as president.

  24. Hal says:

    I do believe one thing though…

    I do believe another thing, that the record of subrosa racism in Republican’s campaigns are der rigor. McCain, himself, was subject to this by Rove in 2000 (Black Baby out of wedlock rumors in SC, for $10,000 Alex). Whether he will succumb to the same temptation or merely let the 500 million dollars that Ari and his buds are going to dump into the general election do it for him remains to be seen. To deny that it isn’t going to happen, as many imply, is simply ridiculous.

    You’re right, though. No one likes a victim and that’s been one of the rather amazing things constant in the whole subject of racism. If you complain about it, you’re a whiny victim. If you let it go, then you get run over with a bulldozer.

    Going to be an interesting campaign.

  25. glasnost says:

    Wow. Bithead, I basically agree with James, which means I must sort of agree with you.

    However, I also don’t think that MY was claiming that John McCain was doing anything wrong. I think what he was pointing out was that, inevitably, John McCain emphasizing his heritage gains a boost from the fact that our Founding Heroes were all white males. He’s going to a place in tradition that a woman and a black guy can’t go.

    McCain isn’t doing anything wrong, but it’s a structural advantage he has that even a Republican woman/black guy could not have.

  26. Steve M. says:

    Except that McCain isn’t a Southerner

    He has roots in Mississippi.

    everyone agrees that being an old man is to his disadvantage

    I don’t. Old people vote.

    and playing up the military angle didn’t do squat for Bob Dole, John Kerry, or (in his re-election bid anyway) George H.W. Bush.

    I answer that here.

  27. Bandit says:

    What we all know from the Dem primaries is that every Dem voter, consultant, analyst and hangeronner votes, consults, analyzes and hangs on based on race and gender and anyone who disagrees witht heir pov is a racist and/or sexist.

  28. Jon Henke says:

    “[McCain] seems to be the first candidate in recent memory to make family history highly relevant to his campaign.”

    Maybe. I recall Jim Webb had always made a very big deal out of his family heritage, his ethnic background and the military experience of his family going back many generations. Oh, and he gave a speech praising the misunderstood confederate soldiers, too.

    Can you even begin to imagine what a storm that would evoke if a Republican did it?

  29. Bithead says:

    McCain isn’t doing anything wrong, but it’s a structural advantage he has that even a Republican woman/black guy could not have.

    I don’t buy that for a moment.
    That assumes a racism on the part of the voter that isn’t there, in the direction you’re claiming.

  30. Grewgills says:

    That assumes a racism on the part of the voter that isn’t there, in the direction you’re claiming.

    Don’t forget that according to Bit the only real racism or sexism left to be concerned about in America is directed against whites and men, particularly white men, and the real religious bigotry is directed at Christians. Oh, the difficulties of being a white Christian man in modern America. I feel for you Bit.

  31. Bithead says:

    And at what point did I say that?
    I will say that apepars to be the lion’s share of it today, but it’s certainly not the only racism anymore.

    And you seem to me to be under the illusion that all cultures are equally valid.