It had the earmark of an old 1960s civil rights revival and rally. But it was the 91st annual NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in Charleston, South Carolina in September. And there was Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton with arms linked on the dais, swaying, rocking, and belting out a rendition of "We Will Overcome." Clinton then proceeded to give a rip roaring speech in which she publicly vowed to do everything from aggressively fighting hate crimes to strengthening voting rights. It was the kind of civil rights speech that top Democrats in campaigns past have sprinted from like the plague.
A couple of months before Hillary's South Carolina love fest, she uttered a word that top Democratic presidential contenders in the recent past have virtually exorcised from their vocabulary, the word: racism. During a debate at Howard University she intimated that racism drove public policy in how Americans dealt with the HIV/AIDS plague. Clinton told the mostly black audience that if young white women were dying at the rate young blacks were from AIDS there would be a national outcry. That kind of blatant point the finger at racism talk wasn't heard from Democratic presidential contenders in two failed presidential campaigns against Bush. The audience went wild at hearing that.
Clinton's real aim was to send a big, forceful message to chief Democratic presidential campaign rival Barack Obama that she, not he, is the real civil rights candidate. Judging from the polls the message has been received. During the early months after both tossed their hats in the presidential ring, Clinton and Obama ran side by side in the avowed admiration and loyalty blacks gave the pair. In a June 2007 Gallup poll, blacks by 8 to 1 margins had favorable views of both them.
When it comes to who they'll actually vote for, it's no contest. Hillary gaps Obama with black women voters, especially lower income, working class black women. Nearly three times more black women say they'll back Hillary over him. She is a woman, mother, and most importantly is regarded by many black women as a strong advocate for health care and women's interests.
But Hillary also runs neck and neck with Obama in the race to net the overall votes of blacks. It's no surprise why Hillary has outflanked Obama on the civil rights front. Start with Bill, that's hubby Bill Clinton. Despite his centrist, and at times very race neutral and hostile policies, especially his emphasis on crime, middle-class tax cuts, and his proposals to overhaul welfare without significant boosts in spending on job, education and child care, Clinton was seen as the only president with the arguable exception of Lyndon Johnson who did more for blacks than any other president.
The nostalgia and fond remembrances for Bill and the Clinton name still sends shivers up the spines of many black voters. "The name is magical in a lot of black communities," notes South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn," and some of those residual emotions are still there. Clyburn wasn't measuring Bill for his place in American history; he was eying the lift that he could give to wife Hillary, and Clyburn, as expected, was on the dais in an arm lock with Hillary at the Freedom Banquet.
Hillary hasn't rested solely on Bill's laurels and his gargantuan fund raising capacity. She has carefully parlayed a strong network among black ministers, politicians, and Democrats within and without the Congressional Black Caucus, and state black elected officials. In addition to the goodwill of blacks and the endorsement of legions of black politicians, she has a heftier campaign war chest than Obama and will spread money around to sweeten the pot to bag other potential political endorsers.
However, the warm fuzzy feel for Bill, her contacts, her money, and her civil rights pronouncements by themselves wouldn't necessarily guarantee her political one-upmanship over Obama with blacks. Polls consistently show that she's light years ahead of him on the experience and qualifications scale and that translates out to electability. That means volumes to black voters. The loath of Bush by black voters is so deep and implacable that they are desperate for a Democrat who can snatch back the White House. The hard reality for Obama is that in a head to head contest with the Republican nominee, he would need the backing of a near majority of white and Hispanic voters in several key swing states, and that includes Louisiana and Florida, to win those states and the general election. At this stage of the presidential game, that's virtually impossible for a black candidate.
They are not naïve about Hillary. They know that GOP hardliners are licking their chops at a Hillary candidacy and will load up their barrels to tar her as evil incarnate. Yet, she still seems a far better bet than Obama to beat back the assault and to be the Democrat that will raise her hand to take the oath of office in January 2009. That's no knock against Obama, but it tells why she trumps him with black voters.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press, October 2007).