Friday, December 21, 2007
Clumsy, but not racist negative campaigning
--David Gergen, 360 Contributor


Some viewers and readers have inquired about last night's small dust-up on AC 360 about the Hillary Clinton campaign. Anderson asked our panel about various ways that the Clinton campaign has gone negative toward Barack Obama, what's the strategy, what it is accomplishing, and the like.

I expressed the view that the Clinton campaign is justified in some of its complaints about this issue, that indeed, Barack did fire first and that he has had more flattering press coverage than she has.

But, I added, I questioned the way the Clintonites were counter-attacking. It has seemed clumsy at times, its sudden acceleration contradicts her recent "likeability" emphasis, and it may well backfire because it reminds voters of old-style politics, -the very thing that Barack has been campaigning against.

Jennifer Donahue of New Hampshire, another panelist, went farther, she asserted that the Clinton campaign was playing "the race card" agasinst Obama. She and I then got into an exchange about her opinion and I argued that it is unfair to make that charge.

I would invite viewers and readers to offer their judgments. My own is that saying someone is playing "the race card" is a serious accusation. To play the race card, as I see it, is to intentionally exploit the race of another person, usually a minority, by appealing to racial prejudices.

Growing up in the South, I often saw segregationist Democrats play the race card against moderate or liberal Democrats who were working for greater racial equality.

We saw some Republicans in South Carolina play the race card against John McCain in the 2000 primary when they spread outrageous rumors that he had fathered a black child.

To paraphrase the Supreme Court, we may not be able to define racism easily but we know it when we see it.

By sharp contrast, I do not believe the Clinton campaign or its surrogates, based on the record so far, has been playing the race card by raising questions about Obama's past (and acknowledged) experiments with drugs as a young man.

To raise the drug question does not automatically bring his race into the conversation. After all, we had huge questions in the 1992 campaign about Bill Clinton and drugs and in the 2000 campaign about George W. Bush and drugs.

A white professor who might have been on the Supreme Court had to withdraw over his past drug use. Past drug use, whether the candidate is black or white, often plays out in American campaigns.

Bottom line: it is certainly fair to criticize the Clinton campaign on all sorts of things but, in my view, it is unfair and unseemly to accuse it of playing the race card. Again, I would welcome your view.
Posted By CNN: 2:29 PM ET
  20 Comments
Hillary and Obama are both such drama queens; can you IMAGINE what they'll be like when they really get the power? People are getting bogged down and distracted by this stuff when the focus must return to what have these candidates done already that shows leadership and success. Rudy says he'll be tough on crime and security and he has done just that in NYC. Romney says he's great at business and he's done that with the SLC Olympic org. On the other hand, Hillary and Obama say they will reduce spending, but neither have voted that way ! All we're hearing from these two (none of which helps America) is promises of what they will do and dissing each other.
Posted By Anonymous xtina chicago IL : 3:36 PM ET
David - I've heard the phrase 'race card' being used in two different ways.

The first is when racial stereotypes are subtly invoked to appeal to racial prejudice, as in the ads against Harold Washington that featured the white 'bimbo' purring 'Harold... call me...' This played into the atavistic fear some whites feel about black men being on the prowl for white women, and appeals to racist 'racial purity' memes.

The second is when a black person implies 'you wouldn't be treating me this way if I were white', as Clarence Thomas did with his 'high-tech lynching' complaint.

Both techniques are manipulative, but the first is reprehensible. And it's clear this is the meaning
Jennifer Donahue intended, since the second meaning doesn't apply to the Clinton camp.

I agree with you that Donahue was way out to lunch on this; while using the 'fear of the other' race card would certainly be effective in appealing to portions of the GOP's base, the Democratic Party's base would rear back in revulsion at it.

I was glad to see you challenge Donahue's sloppy use of emotionally charged terms. Now if we can just get you to stop referring to Bill Clinton as 'the power behind the skirt'...
Posted By Anonymous Arachnae, Sterling VA : 3:47 PM ET
I think Jennifer Donahue's comments last night about the "race card" were inflammatory and entirely out of line and I commend you, David, for the professional way you disagreed with her.

You are right about the press and even 360 being tougher on Senator Clinton's candidacy. Carl Bernstein is stridently critical of her and now we have Ms. Donahue. Aren't commentators supposed to have at least some semblance of objectivity? Attack ads put forth by the political opposition are bad enough, but I don't want or expect to hear that kind of stuff from a CNN panel.

Bringing up a candidate's prior drug use seems like a legitimate issue to me and has nothing to do with race. Give me a break! That's like saying Hillary is interested in health care because she is a woman or that Rudy talks about terrorism because he's a man! And for the record, I am not a committed supporter of Hillary's. I just like to see fairness and balance in the news.
Posted By Blogger Barbara in Culver City, CA : 3:56 PM ET
I have watched this show too long. The 10 PM time is good and the discussions are fairly interesting so I tune in to the program. Also, I tune in to listen to one adult person at a time. I am so glad you asked today's question.

First and foremost Ms. Donahue has to understand the unmentioned terms of engagement for AC 360.

1. Thou shall not interrupt Mr. Gergen. He is the father figure of the show and gets full and fair disclosure each and every night about who he is and who he is working for. Plus he is bright and smart and doesn't talk in circles. He makes sense so listen up.

2. Thou shall not interrupt Anderson Cooper (or any other sub-anchor) because he/she is the host or hostess of the show. Ms. Donahue, please remember, you are an invited guest on AC 360 act like it and use good manners. You may have a different opinion and that is okay, but stop interrupting and making accusations.

Pay attention to your monitor and ear piece. If you are not talking, you can listen to others and know when to interject your thoughts.

3. Thou shall not interrupt Candy or John because they deserve to be heard. Both of them are smart and working hard especially since they have been in Iowa and N.H. freezing their buns off every night!

(And to Candy, congratulations on your weight loss! You are looking wonderful even in those coats!)

4. Finally, if you want to argue, babble and make no sense, head over to the other channel at 10 PM and argue your head off there. Scream at each other and then pat each other on the back! There are some wonderful love/hate relationships over there.

5. Remember the viewers of 360 are bright, articulate and educated in our fields. We have travelled the world too. Many of us have had rich experiences. Most of us want a brillant and educated discussion where to quote Anderson......make up our own minds at home.

I have made up my mind, when Ms. Donahue is on, my remote is on "mute."

I just have to ask, is Ms. Donahue on CNN's payroll? If so, it is going to be a long 11 months!
Posted By Anonymous Renee : 4:04 PM ET
David, you were absolutely correct -- that in no way was "playing the race card." Obama admitted to using cocaine when he was younger, there was nothing racist about talking about it, although the guy was very stupid in the way he said it.

Now, if he had said that Obama had used crack rather than cocaine, that would have been a very slick racist comment, because in this country we view crack and crack users differently, as the current controversy on sentencing laws shows.

I admire Obama for talking about his prior drug use -- I think it will soon become a non-issue for candidates, because so many of this generation and younger experimented as teenagers. It is no longer the disqualifying issue that it used to be. And the way Obama handled it was excellent: he pointed out the waste it was and how he was caught in a time of hopelessness. So many people go through that in their teens and early 20s. But he stopped and decided to make something of himself and did exactly that. In my book, that makes it a redemption story -- a positive, not a negative.

By the way, I often felt like the only person in the world who understood Bill Clinton's "I did not inhale" line. The first time I smoked pot, I didn't inhale and wondered what the heck all the fuss was about! (I tried it again a few years later, inhaling this time, and disliked the results immensely. And never experimented with other drugs after that.)
Posted By Anonymous Cynthia, Portland OR : 4:25 PM ET
I feel drug use is a very legitimate question and issue. People are asked everyday about drug use for jobs, EVEN when joining the military. I am VERY disappointed to see the Barack Obama group quote "the race card.” It really reveals the politics that Barack Obama campaign is playing…….and YES, I would consider this dirty politics. Let’s not divide the United States with separatism. Is Barack Obama going to ask her to resign, for dirty politics?
Vm------ New Orleans
Posted By Anonymous Anonymous : 4:25 PM ET
The comment on drug use wasn't playing the race card. Bob Kerrey's comments on it being "great" his middle name is Hussein, and that some of his extended family is Muslim, that's definitely playing the race card (or, accurately put, the "ethnicity" card.) And lets not forget the other two "operatives" who spread falsehoods about his being muslim.

If Gergen would like to pretend the Clinton machine is above utilizing certain practices to win, by all means he may do so. But to purposefully muddle and misinform a voting constituency as to someone's ethnicity, as the Clinton machine has at least three times now, so as to exploit the public's fears and prejudices of Islam, yes, that's definitely akin to playing the race card, regardless of whether its done through operatives or otherwise.
Posted By Anonymous J. Williams : 4:38 PM ET
I agree with you, David. The Clinton campaign is certainly responding to attack ads with questionable ads of their own, but as yet, I don't believe they are using race as a negative issue, and to be honest, I don't believe they will in the future.

Should Hilary Clinton go on and win the Democratic nomination, she will need African-American support to win the general election.
Posted By Anonymous Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 4:39 PM ET
Hello David:

I'm enjoying your blog posts. You have a very distinctive way of shedding light to what's happening in the political arena.

If either candidate wants to show the voters their "likeability", they should stop the attacks against each other. It's really not winning points in my book.

During the show last night, I wasn't following Jennifer's line of reasoning on the Clinton camp playing the race card, especially in regards to Obama experimenting with drugs. What benefit would the Clinton campaign get for playing the race card? Wouldn't appear to be a strategy I would follow if I were running for president.
Posted By Anonymous Jolene, St. Joseph, MI : 4:58 PM ET
Correct me if I'm wrong -- I was pretty young even in 2000 -- but I don't recall anyone ever implying that either Clinton or Bush *sold* drugs.

Bringing up Obama's past is not racist in itself -- he's voluntarily brought it up himself. But implying that he could have sold drugs is entirely different. I can't read minds, so I don't know if it was the Clinton campaign intentionally playing to racial biases -- although when it's not been suggested about a white man and they're the first to bring it up, I find it hard to believe they had no clue. But no matter their intent, I think it will anyway.
Posted By Anonymous Journey, Lubbock, TX : 4:59 PM ET
David/AC360:
It is highly doubtful that the Clinton campaign was playing "the race card" when questioning Obama's experimentation with illegal drugs. Why would the Clinton campaign shoot its own foot? Hillary and Bill Clinton have the support of many minorities.

An example of playing "the race card" is Mitt Romney's statement that his father marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Romney's explanation of his father's absence at the march was clumsy and irresponsible.

Jennifer Donahue was also clumsy with her view on "the race card". She had no creditable basis to her statement about her accusation.

Any political professional who would be asked to comment on a negative campaign issue should base the accusation on research, facts, or maybe even personal experiences. But I felt she was just talking off the top of her head.

David, it was a responsible act of professional journalism when you confronted Jennifer Donahue's absurd statement. Thank you.
Posted By Blogger Sharon from Indy : 5:30 PM ET
Thank you for posting this blog. I watched your show. It is so often in shows like yours that a panelist will come on the show with an agenda and a goal. Jennifer Donahue's goal was try to spin a story cycle about the Clinton campaign playing the race card. Thanks to your other panelist this was nipped in the bud. My broader hope is that people with influence on CNN and other "news" channels do a better job of vetting the panelists on their shows. I see the point of having panelist with different views but I do not appreciate panelists who show up to do a job. This time the job was to do a number on the Clinton campaign. I would not appreciate it if her job was to do a number on any of the candidates.
Posted By Blogger Bill : 6:08 PM ET
I totally respect your opinion, and I agree with you on the idea that the Hillary campaign is not intentionally engaging in racism against Obama ny playing the race card.

I do think that the race card has been played against Obama by candidates and other entities since he has been running for president. It has always been a traditional racist opinion held by some white people that black people are not qualified to do anything, or do not know enough to do anything, or are plainly incompetant. When Hillary talks about Obama not having enough experience, or not knowing what to do, some white people will take that to mean because he is black he does not know enough to run the country. You could say the Hillary campaign is playing into traditional prejudices by making those statements.

Joe Klein from Time Magazine alluded to this and said that all the presidents should take a qualifiying test so all will know if Obama is qualified to be president if elected. This assertion is based in the racist thinking of the past that deemed African Americans academically inferior to whites and tests were needed to show that blacks were actually competant enough to go to school with whites.

Under this thinking you could successfully argue that the Hillary campaign has played the race card against Obama. I don't think that she is intentionally doing that, but you could argue the point.

Sylvie Grace; Atlanta, Georgia
Posted By Anonymous Anonymous : 7:38 PM ET
Dear David,

I agree with you. There is no "race card" being played here. I think that any time the temperature starts to rise, whether it be in political campaigns or other arenas there is always the race issue that people like to conjure up. It is juvenile in many instances and frankly, is worn-out. People need to stop playing this game.
Posted By Blogger Carolyn Brandenburg : 8:07 PM ET
I watched 360 last night and I was glad that David Gergen spoke up and challenged Jennifer Donahue's comment. When she made the remark that they were playing "the race card" I thought - what is she talking about.... this argument makes no sense at all.

I found Donahue's remarks offensive when she tried to back up her ridiculous charge by saying that references to drug use are anti-African American. Maybe she doesn't get out of New Hampshire enough to know that drug use is across the board: all ethnic groups, all socio-economic groups. ( I don't think New Hampshire is known for its' diversity). If anyone was making racially insensitive remarks it was Donohue herself!

I am no fan of Clinton and I would never vote for her, but I do not think any of the comments made by her staff were racially motivated.

I agreed with Mr. Gergen, and I am glad that he spoke up and did not let Donohue's charges slip through without a counter argument.
Posted By Anonymous Carol, California : 9:12 PM ET
I agree with you. No, I don't think a race card was played.
I think perhaps some dirty pool would be more like it.
The word racist is thrown around too often these days. I know that racism still exists, but we can't twist every word, every action and put it all under a microscope to find a hidden meaning that may or may not exist.

Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif.
Posted By Blogger Lorie Ann : 10:12 PM ET
I think that it would be wise to keep in mind intention here. Although we can criticize the Clinton campaign for its attacks, which are seemingly getting more and more "clumsy" as Mr. Gergen pointed out, or as I might say, a bit unprofessional, I don't think that they intentionally play the race card. I see it more as a basic character attack--trying to get their leading opponent from any angle possible. However, the continued stress on Obama's past drug use may for some people, bring in other connotations such as race that are a deep-rooted part of our societal bias and prejudices.
Posted By Anonymous Mehroz B. from Petaluma, CA : 11:45 PM ET
David

I am glad you disagreed with Ms. Donahue on the Clinton Campaign using the race card. I don't think they did and I don't think they will. Bringing up someone's past drug use is commonplace in elections and in past elections it was not racial as the majority of candidates were white; now that we have an African American candidate does not change this aspect of the campaign by giving it racial overtones. Ms. Donahue's conclusion that it was playing the race card was in error; an error I am glad you corrected.

Rather than past drug usage, I think a comparison on what issues Obama voted present on rather than yes/no as well as when Clinton did it too would be more pertinent to how they have handled different issues in their current offices. Their stand so far on different issues would probably be more illuminating than whether one used drugs in one's youth.

Annie Kate
Birmingham AL
Posted By Blogger Annie Kate : 11:59 PM ET
i c the sexist card more than the race card,..,all these men r sexist.,thats y we r in the situation ,.they have tried to keeep women out of politic 200 yrs now ,.i truly think that hillary is a mother figure shes been there n done that .,,.u no the old saying 'if u want it done right the first time ,.get a woman to do it' :)
txtj
Posted By Anonymous txtj : 2:07 AM ET
Anderson,
You have so much practical experience through all your travels. Should you run for President, you would have my vote and support.
Posted By Anonymous Ed Early : 12:02 AM ET
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