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Framing MLK And LBJ

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
"Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do; presidents before had not even tried. But it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said 'We're going to do it' and actually got it accomplished."

-- Hillary Clinton

I come neither to praise Hillary nor to bury her. I just want to make that clear from the onset. And while I normally don't like to comment in what I call the "scandal du jour" buzzing around the blogosphere, I feel that many people are missing a key point in this whole debate. And missing that point could be disastrous for the Clinton campaign, and could sweep Obama into the nomination. So I feel it's worth commenting on.

The Clinton camp, Hillary included, has been trying to explain her remarks using some version of the following: "Hillary Clinton was merely pointing out the difference between dreamers and people who get things done. Her campaign has stressed this issue in numerous ways, and she was trying to make the point that you need an effective president who knows how to wield the levers of power. While she feels that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deserves the lion's share of the credit for getting civil rights laws passed, and she was not denigrating his efforts in any way, she was pointing out that without President Johnson's political knowledge, it would never have become law. The Clinton campaign thinks that Hillary has more of that political knowledge, and would therefore be a better president than Barack Obama."

Fair enough, as it goes. Much of the criticism of Clinton's remarks is centered on the fact that King's legacy is a third-rail issue (touch it and you die) in Democratic politics -- Clinton was seen as somehow "slighting" King, and so she had to pay the price for doing so. So the Clintonites are falling all over themselves trying to refute this perceived "slight" of King.

But Barack Obama (who has wisely stayed above the fray himself in this debate) has to bear some of the responsibility for this part of the debate as well, because he has been explicitly using King in his speeches of late. In other words, he opened the door on the subject. Hillary was inept in what she was trying to say, but in the political world, the subject itself is supposed to be fair game because Obama raised it in the first place.

That's the debate as I see it raging so far. But nobody seems to be addressing what (for me) is the central issue in the debate: the "framing" of the issue by Clinton. And because Hillary isn't even addressing this aspect of it, she is (perhaps fatally) destroying her support in the black community. Which is why, if left unaddressed, Obama's going to reap the rewards of this debate even happening -- and Clinton may look back at this statement as her "Dean scream" moment in the campaign. Now, that's pretty extreme. It might not happen this way. But I see it as a real possibility, unless she confronts the framing mistake which she is apparently unaware she even made.

Because when black people hear her quote, it's not so much that Hillary is cheapening King, it's the whole racial picture she's painting. King, cap in hand, had to come to LBJ, a white politician, and beg his political help in getting a law passed. Hillary's comment is, on the face of it, historically correct. Without LBJ, the Civil Rights Act wouldn't have become law. But what nobody is addressing in this whole debate is this isn't the 1960s anymore.

Think about it -- the issue is that King needed Johnson's help in getting a law passed. Well, why did he need this help? Why couldn't King's "dream" become a "reality" without Johnson's help? Because in the 1960s there is no possibility whatsoever that a black man could have been president. Again, think about it -- if King had been president himself, he sure wouldn't have needed LBJ's help.

This is historical fact. We've come a long way since those days. But nobody is pointing out that it is now 2008, and not 1964. The big difference (as it relates to this argument) between then and now is that now we have a black man who has a very good chance at actually becoming president on his own.

Would King have made a good president, and been able to pass the Civil Rights Act? Who knows? Would Barack be a good president today? Again, who knows? But what is crystal clear is that King would have had exactly zero chance of becoming president in 1964. Barack Obama has a very realistic chance today. That's a pretty big difference for everyone to be ignoring.

This also, it should be noted, makes Clinton's argument ridiculous. Because she is trying to view what happened in the early 60s through the lens of a 2008 political campaign. The way she has framed it -- and repeatedly defended it, as in last Sunday's Meet The Press interview -- is that she has the highest respect for Dr. King, and that she was just making a historical statement about "dreamers" and "doers." But this defense doesn't even address what many black voters are annoyed with -- the idea that in 2008 even if Dr. King himself was running -- that she would be a better candidate since she's a doer and not just a dreamer.

Now, I take the Clinton camp at their word that she really, really wasn't trying to inject race into the debate. And that she would disagree with that previous paragraph's interpretation of what she said. But she's not accurately looking at it the way black voters may be: that any black dreamer should take a back seat -- in 2008 -- to a white politician, because she'll be able to "get things done" by deftly wielding political power. To black America, the question this arouses is: "Well, why can't Obama be a dreamer and actually have that political power himself as well?" Clinton continues to not answer this question at her own peril.

2008 is not 1964. Unless Clinton realizes the mistake she made in framing the issue (and addresses it forcefully), this is just going to get worse and worse for her. South Carolina's primary next Saturday will be the first test of this.

[Disclaimer: I'm a white guy, so anything I have to say about how "black America" feels about anything should be taken with a large grain of salt. I wrote this article because it is my honest reaction to how the Clinton camp is ignoring what I consider a big mistake in framing an issue. So don't read too much into it. And as always, I am officially neutral in this race and do not support any one candidate over another, at least until the Democratic nominee is announced.]

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

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