Longtime readers of this column may get the feeling that they have seen this headline before.
Three and a half years ago, I wrote a column with a similar title after former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.), a supporter of presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, asserted that Barack Obama wouldn’t be where he was in the Democratic race if he wasn’t black.
Ferraro, who died in March but forever will be remembered as the first woman nominated for vice president by a major party, was vilified at the time for her comment and forced to step down from the Clinton campaign’s finance committee.
In that 2008 column, I came to the obvious conclusion that the answer was “no,” Obama would not have been a major factor in the Democratic race if he had been white. Whatever effect his race had on him growing up, Obama’s presidential bid was helped, not hurt, by his skin color.
Clinton had a natural advantage with female voters and liberals, and because of her husband’s unique appeal in the African-American community, she would also have had the advantage with black voters. Her story, as the first woman with a good chance to be nominated by a major party and elected president, was compelling.
But along came Obama with his even more compelling story, and suddenly Obama’s profile and message of change trumped Clinton’s. A white hopeful with Obama’s personal narrative and oratorical skills might have been an interesting candidate, but he would have had little chance of overcoming Clinton or even elbowing John Edwards out of the Democratic race.
In many ways, Herman Cain’s situation in the Republican race is quite different from Obama’s in 2008 — and not only because Cain’s candidacy is at risk following reports of alleged sexual harassment and because of his mishandling of the controversy.
Among the many differences between Cain and Obama is that Cain isn’t actually “leading” the Republican race at the moment. He and Mitt Romney are ahead in national polls and in Iowa, but the caucuses and primaries haven’t even begun. When I wrote about how Obama’s race played into his success, he had already won caucuses and primaries and had demonstrated that he was a serious contender for his party’s nomination.
Unlike the Democrats, the GOP has only a small contingent of African-Americans in its party, and “diversity” and “multiculturalism” aren’t highly valued by party activists, caucus attendees or primary voters.
Republican and Democratic voters are motivated by ideology, but in the case of Democrats, race (racism, equality, fairness, justice, etc.) is an integral part of their ideological equation. That’s not the case with Republicans, who prefer to look past group membership and stress the individual.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.