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.
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.