The Race

The problem with hiring a guy because of his race is, it gets very hard if you have to fire him.

Barack Obama is likely to face a primary challenge in 2012, but the question of the day is whether it will be some minor fringe-like protest candidate like Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel or a more serious challenger like Howard Dean or Russ Feingold. Jamelle Bouie, an African-American* columnist for the liberal magazine The American Prospect, says what other Democrats may be thinking but afraid to vocalize: Obama’s race is the biggest obstacle to a serious primary challenge to the president in 2012 because black voters would look at such a challenge through the lens of race. The Politico flags the issue:

That’s in large part because Obama enjoys overwhelming and unwavering support among African-Americans, a pillar of the Democratic coalition.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that 90 percent of blacks approved of Obama’s performance while just 6 percent said they disapproved.

“You just start out with the fact of the matter that in a Democratic primary the African-American vote is enormous, and so unless you could somehow split that one group away from him – which I doubt anybody can do – you can’t possibly even put a dent in his candidacy,” said longtime Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, Dean’s top strategist in 2004 and a leader in the insurgent wing of the party.

That 90% figure is far out of step with every other demographic (even those that remain comparatively loyal to Obama) and far more extreme than opposition to Obama in any group. And it’s consistent with the level of support he got not only against John McCain but Hillary Clinton as well; the Clintons had long had deep and broad support among African-American voters (remember when Bill was christened “the first black president”?), and Hillary and Obama were running on fairly similar platforms, yet Obama won 90 or more percent of the black vote in just about every primary. There is no possible way to explain such a dramatic voting pattern other than racial solidarity: voting for Obama because he was black.

Bouie goes further than Trippi and argues that because of that racial loyalty, black voters would not only stick with Obama in the primary but then abandon the Democratic Party if it turned against Obama over his performance in office, perhaps even if the primary challenge was unsuccessful:

[A] challenge would destroy the Democratic Party in national elections…it would drive a huge wedge between African Americans and the party at large. Blacks have been loyal supporters of every Democratic president since Johnson, even when that support was undeserved (see: Bill Clinton). Moreover, like the vast majority of voters, African Americans aren’t engaged with the policy disputes that drive (elite) progressive disillusionment with the president….To them, a primary challenge looks less like principled objection, and more like an attack from white liberals, who could put up with worse from white presidents, but won’t hesitate to turn their backs on the first black one.

Black anger over a primary would quickly end their loyalty to the Democratic Party, and doom the party in national elections for as long as they stay at arms length.

This is a pretty dim view of what motivates African-American voters, who after all have voted in massive numbers for liberal candidates for the past several decades, at least theoretically because they supported those candidates’ positions on the issues of the day and their qualifications for office (talk for ten minutes with your average Tea Partier – of any color – and you may find that Bouie’s view of most voters as not being interested in issues is an overgeneralization). While you get threats like this now and then from all sorts of groups, the fact is that nobody seriously worries about a reaction like this from other voting blocs – Mormon voters didn’t abandon the GOP when Mitt Romney lost the primaries, evangelical Christians didn’t become less Republican over the defeat of Harriet Miers (to name two examples where overwrought commentators threatened such things). Southern evangelicals did leave the Democratic party in large numbers after supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976, but more because they were disappointed in the performance of Carter and other Democrats in office than because he was challenged by Ted Kennedy, and I’m pretty sure nobody in Ted’s camp worried that such voters would be alienated by his challenge.

Are black voters different in that regard? I don’t know, although I suspect Bouie is at least right that if Obama actually lost the primary, African-American turnout would probably be low enough in the fall to utterly doom any challenger. Here in New York, I recall a similar dynamic after Al Sharpton’s loss in a racially divisive Senate primary in 1992 helped doom the winner, Robert Abrams, and Mark Green faced a similar fate after defeating Fernando Ferrer in the 2001 Democratic primary for New York City Mayor.

But I suspect that enough leading Democrats share Bouie’s broader fears that they will hesitate to support the kind of challenge to Obama that was mounted against Carter in 1980 and against Lyndon Johnson in 1968, as well as (in the pre-primary days) Harry Truman in 1948. No matter what Obama does, the Democrats will be afraid that trying to fire him is even worse.

* – I mention Bouie’s race only because in this instance it’s relevant to his perspective on this particular topic.