Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Few Good (White) Men

I'll begin by noting that if it is not true that Bill Clinton is a spurting cock, then there is no more truth to be known in the universe. (See this video for yet but another example of what the Wall Street Journal called "Obama's Clinton Education.")

Far from being a gratuitous aside, this observation is central to the dilemma faced jointly by Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign and Democrats more generally. As it is, Democrats have several squares to circle
(as discussed elsewhere) in their attempts to maintain party unity in the face of a Republican Party that is slowly coalescing around John McCain's candidacy; Bill Clinton's unnecessarily incendiary commentary only adds degrees of difficulty to the task.

For now at least, many Democrats think they are beginning to see the light as to who might best unite party and country. Exit polling from South Carolina indicates that 55 percent of voters think that Sen. Barack Obama "would be most likely to unite the country if elected president," versus 26 percent who said the same of Clinton. And as of late, Obama has also garnered one (and perhaps another) significant endorsement from liberals of irreproachable standing, along with that of the Seattle Times. These affirmations are further evidence of the transcendent nature of Obama's campaign as distinct from that of Sen. Clinton, which seems to be heavily laden with matching "his and hers" baggage from the 1990s.

Doubtless, endorsements are not votes, but merely votes of confidence. To maintain his momentum, Obama will need to do at least as well - if not better - among white males as he did yesterday. Roughly 27 percent of white male voters opted in favor of Illinois' junior Senator. Exit polls from Nevada, New Hampshire, and of course Iowa indicate that he may be up to the task (which might become easier should John Edwards fold up his tent some time soon after the February 5th "Super-Duper Tuesday" primaries.)

But perhaps it's fair to ask if Obama - or any other Democrat - should seek the white male vote at all. Thomas Schaller, professor of political science at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, argued in Salon that Democrats should abandon their obsession with "that shirt-sleeved, straight-talkin', these-colors-don't-run fella who votes his cultural values above all else."

In 2004, according to New York Times exit polls, Democrat Kerry won 38 percent of the total white male vote, confirming a familiar pattern. Kerry's share was basically the same that every Democratic presidential candidate has received since Michael Dukakis. In the four elections between 1988 and 2000, in fact, using New York Times exit poll results, the Democratic nominee won 36 percent, 37 percent, 38 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of votes cast by white men. Because white men cast between 33 and 36 percent of all votes in 2004, that means a mere 12 to 13 percentage points of Kerry's 48 percent nationally came from white men - about one vote in four. Nevertheless, and despite running against an incumbent in the first post-Sept. 11 presidential election, Kerry still came within one state of winning the Electoral College. Four years earlier, Al Gore also came within one state of reaching the magical 270 electors, and actually won the popular vote nationally - while, like Kerry, receiving only about one-fourth of his support from white men.

What about Super-Bubba himself, Bill Clinton? By siphoning off 22 percent of the white male vote in 1992, Ross Perot would appear to have prevented Clinton from breaking the Democrats' pattern. But more revealing is the fact that when in 1996 Perot's support among white men fell by half, to 11 percent, Clinton's support improved by a meager 1 percent. The truth is that Clinton was no more dependent on white male votes for his two wins than Gore and Kerry were penalized for garnering the same level of support from these voters in their two defeats.
Schaller further adds that the white male vote has been effectively offset by that of African Americans, arguing that "the black vote fully compensates for the Democrats' deficit among white men." Up to now, the black vote has been the most reliable piece of the progressive electoral triad also comprised of women and Hispanics.

For Democrats, the dynamics of this race are radically different from previous elections where a white male was the
Democratic nominee. It is all but certain that the party will have a black or a female as its standard-bearer. And as former Rep. Floyd Flake observed recently in the New York Daily News, this presents a unique challenge for progressives.

The race and gender problem facing Democrats is largely about white men. White men have drifted from or have been driven from the party in record numbers since the 1960s. Their absence has left the party hobbled in presidential politics, primarily playing for states on the liberal coasts.

Our candidates will never win over those white men unless we can, on the one hand, talk candidly and openly about race - without setting off spasms of theatrical finger-pointing after seemingly innocent comments - and, on the other hand, transcend race, by answering Americans' common concerns, especially on the economy.

Think about it. If white male Democrats like Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry have been unable to win white male voters in sufficient numbers, what can we expect when the Democratic contender is either a woman or an African-American?

Progressive blacks, Hispanics and women notwithstanding, if Democrats hope to move America beyond a self-defeating identity politics - which they will surely need to do should either Barack or Hillary get the nod - they will need to "raise the volume on a substantive discussion around bread-and-butter economic issues."

Methinks Rev. Flake is a tad too optimistic. Setting aside liberal speechifying about the Democratic Party being a "big tent," the tent is not nearly big enough for rabid feminists, supplicatory minorities and "Joe Six-pack." If Obama intends to make a serious run, he will have to contend with the fact that his party has been deaf to concerns about liberal overreach vis-a-vis affirmative action, institutionalized feminism, gun control and the perception of squishiness on national defense. Realistically, the chances of his being able to pivot from the politics of a Democrat primary season driven by the demands of the aggrieved to address the interests of white males is virtually nil.

Four More Years!

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