Monday, March 05, 2007


"Movement" Politics

Geez, between the upheaval at the NAACP and the brand-new "March on Selma", you'd think that Black History Month had been extended a few more days:

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), describing himself as "the offspring of the movement," paid homage Sunday to the civil rights protesters whose violent beatings here at the hands of state troopers and sheriff's deputies 42 years ago sparked national outrage and led to legislation ensuring the voting rights of African Americans throughout the South.

Just a few blocks away, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) claimed the same inheritance, describing the civil rights movement as "the gift that keeps on giving" as it propels new types of politicians onto the national stage. Their simultaneous appearances at the annual commemoration of one of the most famous moments in the civil rights struggle embodied the historic nature of a presidential race in which an African American and a woman lead the Democratic field.

The two presidential candidates spoke at separate Sunday morning services and later joined in the ritual march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, led by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who as a young civil rights leader was beaten on the bridge with other protesters on the morning of March 7, 1965, as they began a voting-rights march to Montgomery.

Clinton marched with her husband, former president Bill Clinton, who came to Selma to be inducted into the National Voting Rights Museum's hall of fame. It was the first time the Clintons appeared together at a major event in the 2008 campaign and an appearance much debated in Hillary Clinton's campaign before it was announced Thursday night.
It's very early, but "body language" is always important in political campaigns. Polls aside, the body language suggests that Obama, not Hillary Clinton, is setting the tone for this debate. It was Hillary's people who felt the need to "go negative" on Obama over the David Geffen comments (those statements themselves can't be construed as surrogate attack on Clinton -- even that's how her campaign chose to perceive them).

The result of that action was -- in last week's ABC/Washington Post poll -- blacks jumping from Clinton to Obama.

Now look at the Selma situation: Obama had been invited to give a speech weeks ago -- before he declared his official candidacy. Hillary later angled herself an invitation to give a speech at a nearby church -- and accept an award on behalf of Bill Clinton. Then, the campaign decided to bring the former president along as well.

I think that's a mistake: Not only does Sen. Clinton responding to Obama's moves look like "me-too"-ism, but dragging Bill Clinton along looks like overkill. Worse, Hillary will always suffer in comparison to Bill (as, in fact, do most mortal politicians). Bill is a natural master, whereas Hillary is a diligent student.

The problem Hillary faces is that she may be running against a natural master, someone as charismatic as her husband. Worse, Obama has swiped the "generational change" mantle in which the Clinton-Gore ticket draped itself 15 years ago.

I wonder how well Hillary's attaching herself to the civil rights movement will go over well with black audiences: It's not often remarked but the "bandwagon" jumping that has occurred over the decades since the civil rights movement was launched can be a source of frustration for blacks: First, it was the women's movement, then gays, and now immigrants -- all these groups that utilize much of the language of the civil rights movement, and often with much success.

But, many African-Americans believe -- rightly so -- that their struggle is sui generis. Nothing is quite the same as the history of blacks coming to America in bondage and battling for centuries for their equal rights. That's not to say that those other movements weren't important and didn't have their own unique tragedies and triumphs.

But, it is not the same as the black experience. Furthermore, both for women and some immigrants, arguably a fair bit of economic and social leap-frogging over blacks has occurred.

So, while Hillary Clinton was gracious to note the doors opened by the civil rights movement, but in doing so she may have accidentally raised some associations that might have been better left alone.

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