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Jordan Michael Smith Headshot

What Obama Owes Bill Clinton

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An increasing number of commentators are coming to the realization that it is almost impossible for Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination. The superdelegates are not going to overrule the pledged delegates, and they never were going to. The New York Times' David Brooks suggested on Meet the Press on Sunday that Hillary Clinton should begin to run as Mike Huckabee eventually did, staying in the campaign until North Carolina even though there is little chance of winning, while avoiding attacks on the presumptive nominee and building goodwill among Obama supporters. Whether or not Hillary Clinton takes Brooks' advice, it's clear she is going to lose, and its clear she ran a nasty campaign. Despite the nastiness directed at him, however, Obama should be thanking Bill Clinton for one thing: his campaign nomination is unthinkable without him.

It was not so long ago--just twenty years, perhaps even less--that race was arguably the central political issue in American life. From the L.A. riots in 1990 to the O.J. Simpson trial, race dominated the headlines and the concerns of every American. In the 1988 election, race was pivotal in the notorious Willie Horton ads, which featured the African-American Horton being let out of prison and going on a raping and killing spreed--and the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis being responsible for his crimes. As Thomas and Mary Edsall described in their classic 1991 book Chain Reaction, instead of discussing race outright, the Republican Party was focusing on America's crime and drug problems. Since blacks committed crimes at higher rates and had higher drug abuse rates than whites, the Republicans were stoking racial hostility as well. The GOP used code terms like welfare, affirmative action and big government in order to whip up fears of blacks among white Americans.

To a large extent, Bill Clinton was responsible for, if not entirely neutralizing, then at least weakening, the effectiveness of such racist appeals. Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas and hence trusted in a way the Northerners Dukakis and Walter Mondale had not been. More importantly, he had read Chain Reaction, and he had learned from the failed George McGovern campaign (which he worked on). As chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton had understood how crucial fiscal restraint and crime-fighters were positions for the Democrats to reclaim. By marrying tough-on-crime action with welfare reform and pledging to fight big government, Clinton rendered traditional Republican appeals to race largely ineffective. Unlike Republicans, though, Clinton made no nods in the directions of racists, and had an unprecedented relationship with black voters. Toni Morrison famously called him the first black president, though no doubt many blacks would disagree with such a statement now (if they didn't then).

Both Frank Rich and Paul Krugman have argued there is a declining significance of race in American politics. Obama surely agrees with them--he believed before many others that he could actually capture the nomination. To the extent that he is right, and America is a more colorblind country, Obama--and all of us--have Bill Clinton in large part to thank.