Political interests trump race. That's the hard lesson likely
2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama will soon learn. Those who
think black voters will automatically support one of their own need
to think again. Recent history proves that point.
A survey in January 1996 showed that the so-called black
president, Bill Clinton, nosed out Jesse Jackson and Nation of Islam
leader Louis Farrakhan in popularity among blacks. Eight years
later, when Al Sharpton made his presidential foray in the South
Carolina Democratic primary, he barely nudged out eventual
Democratic presidential contender John Kerry among black voters.
State and national black leaders put their muscle behind Senator
Kerry or John Edwards.
In the 2006 midterm elections, Ohio Secretary of State Ken
Blackwell, pro football great Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, and
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele - all Republicans - banked heavily
on getting black voter support to beat their white Democratic
opponents in state races. They failed miserably.
Blacks were enraptured with President Clinton and have supported
white Democrats for good reason. They believed these seasoned
politicians would deliver on their promise to fight for jobs,
education, and healthcare. And they either held office or were good
bets to win. Interests and electability trumped color.
The same rules apply to Senator Obama. Blacks may puff their
chests with pride at the prospect of him breaking racial barriers,
but they'll still judge him on two crucial questions. Can he deliver
on bread and butter issues? And can he win?
The second is critical. Many blacks are leery that he's a media-
created flash in the pan, and will wilt under the campaign's intense
glare. Most black voters desperately want to end Republican White
House rule. But that doesn't mean they'll support just any Democrat.
It's got to be a Democrat with whom they feel comfortable.
In the eyes of many blacks, Obama departs from past black
presidential contenders such as Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley
Braun, and Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton. They were readily
identifiable, urban-bred, African-Americans who spoke out boldly on
civil rights, poverty, and economic injustice. On the other hand,
the racially mixed, Harvard-trained Obama, as the so-called
postracial candidate, has soft-pedaled these issues. It's no
accident that his appeal among whites seems stronger so far than
Hillary Clinton and Mr. Edwards come much closer to fitting the
bill. Many blacks applaud Edwards for being virtually the only top
white Democrat to speak candidly about racial problems in the 2004
presidential race, and for barnstorming the country afterward
championing labor rights and demanding a new war on poverty. …