Obama's defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to.
By Jacob Weisberg | NEWSWEEK
Published Aug 23, 2008
From the magazine issue dated Sep 1, 2008
What with the Bush legacy of reckless war and economic mismanagement, 2008 is a year that favors the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican one. Yet Barack Obama, with every natural and structural advantage, is running only neck and neck with John McCain, a subpar nominee with a list of liabilities longer than a Joe Biden monologue. Obama has built a crack political operation, raised record sums and inspired millions with his eloquence and vision. McCain has struggled with a fractious campaign team, deficits in clarity and discipline, and remains a stranger to charisma. Yet at the moment, the two appear to be tied. What gives?
If it makes you feel better, you can rationalize Obama's missing 10-point lead on the basis of Clintonite sulkiness, his slowness in responding to attacks or the concern that he may be too handsome, brilliant and cool to be elected. But let's be honest: the reason Obama isn't ahead right now is that he trails badly among one group, older white voters. He lags with them for a simple reason: the color of his skin.
Much evidence points to racial prejudice as a factor that could be large enough to cost Obama the election. That warning is written all over last month's CBS/New York Times poll, which is worth studying if you want to understand white America's curious sense of racial grievance. In the poll, 26 percent of whites say they have been victims of discrimination. Twenty-seven percent say too much has been made of the problems facing black people. Twenty-four percent say that the country isn't ready to elect a black president. Five percent acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate.
Five percent surely understates the extent of the problem. In the Pennsylvania primary, one in six white voters told exit pollsters that race was a factor in his or her decision. Seventy-five percent of those people voted for Clinton. You can do the math: 12 percent of the white Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that they didn't vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American. And that's what Democrats in a Northeastern(ish) state admit openly.
Such prejudice usually comes coded in distortions about Obama and his background. To the willfully ignorant, he's a secret Muslim married to a black-power radical. Or—thanks, Geraldine Ferraro—he got where he is only because of the special treatment accorded those lucky enough to be born with African blood. Some Jews assume Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel, the way they assume other black politicians to be. To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who as president would favor blacks over whites. Or he's an "elitist," who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn't one of them. We're just not comfortable with, you know, a Hawaiian.
Then there's the overt stuff. In May, Pat Buchanan, who frets about the European-Americans losing control of their country, ranted on MSNBC in defense of white West Virginians voting on the basis of racial solidarity. The No. 1 best seller in America, "Obama Nation," by Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D., leeringly notes that Obama's white mother always preferred her "mate" be "a man of color." John McCain has yet to get around to denouncing this vile book.
Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: the United States had its day, but in the end couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.
Choosing McCain, in particular, would herald the construction of a bridge to the 20th century—and not necessarily the last part of it, either. McCain represents a cold-war style of nationalism that doesn't get the shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics, the centrality of soft power in a multipolar world or the transformative nature of digital technology. This is a matter of attitude as much as age. A lot of 71-year-olds are still learning and evolving. But in 2008, being flummoxed by that newfangled doodad, the personal computer, seems like a deal breaker. At this hinge moment in human history, McCain's approach to our gravest problems is hawkish denial. I like and respect the man, but the maverick has become an ostrich: he wants to deal with the global energy crisis by drilling, our debt crisis by cutting taxes, and he responds to threats from Georgia to Iran with Bush-like belligerence and pique.
You may or may not agree with Obama's policy prescriptions, but they are, by and large, serious attempts to deal with the biggest issues we face: a failing health-care system, oil dependency, income stagnation and climate change. To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline.