The Britney Spears Democrats

Feb 1, 2008

Elisa Cramer

Palm Beach Post

The morning after Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, longtime Clinton pollster Sergio Bendixen told The New Yorker magazine, "The Hispanic voter - and I want to say this very carefully - has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."

Was that merely "a historical statement," as Sen. Clinton later claimed? Or was the Clinton camp playing the race card?

Ryan Lizza, author of that article, wrote: "Interestingly, in the final days of the New Hampshire campaign, when defeat looked certain for Clinton, it was Hillary's aides who started talking privately about racial politics. They argued that on Feb. 5, when 22 states vote, Hillary's fire wall would be Hispanic voters in the largest states, such as California and New York."

After the New Hampshire win, Mr. Bendixen said, "The fire wall doesn't apply now, because she is in good shape, but before last night the Hispanic vote was going to be the most important part of her fire wall on Feb. 5."

Going into South Carolina, former President Bill Clinton attempted to marginalize Sen. Barack Obama as "the black candidate," downplaying expectations of an Obama victory by likening him to Jesse Jackson in the '80s with a what-else-would-you-expect-from-black-voters-toward-a-black-candidate tone. Were some Clinton staffers also practicing the politics of division, quietly seeking to inflame racial tensions between blacks and Hispanics going into states - Florida, and now California, New Mexico and others - with large Hispanic populations?

In fact, Hispanic voters in many big cities have overwhelmingly supported African-American mayoral candidates, researcher Matt Barreto of the University of Washington found: 80 percent for Harold Washington in Chicago in 1983; 73 percent for David Dinkins in New York in 1989; more than 70 percent for Wellington Webb of Denver in 1991 and Ron Kirk of Dallas in 1995. Even in Miami on Tuesday, according to exit polls cited by The Miami Herald, a larger percentage of Hispanics (30) voted for Sen. Obama than non-Hispanic whites (22).

Hillary Clinton's success with Hispanic voters probably has less to do with racial bias than with their knowledge of Bill Clinton, whom they supported nationwide by nearly 80 percent in 1996. As Mr. Bendixen also said in The New Yorker: "It's one group where going back to the past really works. All you need to say in focus groups is 'Let's go back to the '90s.' "

But that focuses too much attention on Bill Clinton, not Hillary Clinton. Hence the planting of a different seed, a more subtle, insidious, superficially irrefutable seed, because, well, everyone knows there are racial tensions in America...

A whispering taint initiated by campaign operatives is not only destructive; it is insulting, as though millions of people of any ethnicity are one monolithic entity, having the same thoughts, the same perspectives, the same biases, the same interests. Nor does it value the cultures under one vast label.

The local history that may influence voters in Miami - from the McDuffie race riots in 1980 to the influx of Cubans via the Mariel boatlift to the displacement of blacks from neighborhoods to Jewish people once banned from lunch counters - is different than the experience of Mexican-American voters in Central Florida, Nevada or New Mexico. And that is different from the experience of Jewish seniors and younger Jewish-Americans, and African-Americans, Haitian-Americans, West Indians ...

"Ethnic voting is a sorry reality of American politics," state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader, said this week. What would this campaign - this country - look like if, instead of exploiting ethnic and racial frictions, candidates acknowledged and discussed them, paying close attention to the history that helped shape them and furthering the progress that is helping to ease them?

Such self-propelled divisive politics should worry Democrats. "We're getting close to the point," said Rep. Gelber, "where we're creating a divide in our own party. I fear we're going to end up with an 'Oops! We did it again' moment, where we find a way to create divisions in our own party and end up losing the election."

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