The Magazine

It's Not Race, It's Arugula

Obama's real electoral challenge.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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This neglect often leads to a reading of history that aligns rather poorly with the facts. It is true that Johnson lost the South in 1964 to the Civil Rights issue, but he also won almost everything else on the table. And when the Democrats fell apart in the 1968 cycle, it owed more to Vietnam and rioting students than anything else. They lost again four years later on "acid, amnesty, and abortion," but also through an isolationist nominee who ran on a platform of nonintervention and retreat in foreign affairs. Democrats won both the South and the White House in 1976 with a southern governor known as an integrationist but also as a social conservative and an ex-naval officer--a résumé that later looked misleading after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Iran took over the American Embassy with shockingly little resistance on his part. After 1968, Democrats would win and lose for a number of reasons, none of which seemed to touch on their civil rights stances, which did not seem to vary. On the other hand, it appears indisputable that, both before and after the Civil Rights battles, Democrats lost when they put up an anti-Jacksonian, who seemed both weak and too wordy in foreign affairs.

Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' first major anti-Jacksonian, lost twice by large margins to General Eisenhower, the man who freed Europe. Following him, academicians such as Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, and "Clean Gene" McCarthy couldn't even get nominated, and the Massachusetts duo of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry--who in 1983 ran and served on the same ticket--lost to two Texans named Bush. Kerry, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war, lost partly because other vets ran ads that showed him testifying before Congress as a shaggy-haired antiwar activist. Dukakis sealed his fate in the second presidential debate when, asked if he would support the death penalty if his own wife had been raped and murdered, he bloodlessly said no, and talked about his antidrug program. No less Jacksonian answer has ever been uttered.

As a political type, Barack Obama is not Middle America's idea of a "black" candidate, wholly unlike Al Sharpton (who ran briefly in 2004) or a demagogue such as Jesse Jackson, who put the fear of God into Democratic leaders when he won the Michigan caucuses in 1988. But he is beyond doubt the Academician Incarnate, heir to all of the (white) priests before him. Even some of his more notable missteps recall the gaffes that they made in the past. His complaint in Iowa about the high price of arugula at Whole Foods (an expensive grocery chain much favored by trendies) recalled Michael Dukakis's advice to Iowa farmers that they grow Belgian endive; his faux pas at a fundraiser at a millionaire's pad in San Francisco about small town residents of Pennsylvania who cling to God and guns out of sheer desperation recalled the "joke" told by Gary Hart in the 1984 cycle about toxic wastes in New Jersey while at a millionaire's pad in L.A. "Priests .  .  . write books and sometimes verse," according to Brownstein, and indeed, Obama wrote two of them. "They observe the campaign's hurly-burly through a filter of cool, witty detachment. Their campaigns become crusades, fueled as much by an inchoate longing for a 'new politics' as tangible demands for new policies," and indeed, Obama's main theme, which has listeners swooning, is an inchoate though inspiring mantra of "change." "Obama is not at all a warrior, and is something of an academic," writes Barone:

He is all college campus and not at all boot camp. He has campaigned consistently as an opponent of military action in Iraq. His standard campaign statements on Iraq seem to suggest that all honor should go to the opponents of the war and none to the brave men and women who have waged it. He clearly lacks the military expertise of John McCain or Hillary Clinton, both diligent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Like another eloquent little-known Illinois politician who emerged suddenly as an attractive presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, he seems more comfortable with the language of diplomacy and negotiation than with the words of war. Like Stevenson, he speaks fluently and often eloquently but does not exude a sense of command. He is an interlocutor, not a fighter. His habit of stating his opponents' arguments fairly and sometimes more persuasively than they do themselves has been a political asset among his peers and press but not among Jacksonians, who are more interested in defeating than in understanding their enemies.

And he is up against John McCain, a true Jacksonian if ever there was one. Of course, he dispatched another Jacksonian in Hillary Clinton, who, against all expectations, emerged as a lower-to-middle-class spokesman, and all-purpose warrior queen. As a feminist and graduate of Wellesley and Yale, she was an unlikely choice to appeal to Jacksonians, but she won them over by her grit and tenacity and her stubborn refusal to give in to pressure. Like McCain, she gave the impression that she would never stop fighting, while Obama, as Barone puts it, gave "the impression, through his demeanor and through his statements that he would never start." Obama may be the first nonwhite with a serious chance of reaching the White House, but he is also the latest in a long line of anti-Jacksonians who have tried, and have failed, to win the office of president. The second obstacle may prove more formidable than the first.

In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson, the first black candidate to compete seriously in the national primaries, won the black vote in them by huge nine-to-one margins, but carried virtually nobody else. Historically, priest-like white candidates win the upscale white vote and the students, but tend to do poorly elsewhere. As the first black candidate to run on the wine track, Barack Obama combines these two demographics, though to his credit his appeal is nonracial, and he did not begin to win large tracts of black voters until after taking lily-white Iowa almost by storm. Nonetheless, it is the addition of the blacks to the students and upper-scale whites that allowed him to run better than the Harts and the Bradleys, and his share of the white vote--and his failings within it--tracked largely with theirs. Does this mean that Jacksonian voters are holding Obama's race and his background against him? It's hard to say that, as his problems among them are no worse than those of other, white, academicians in the past. Priests such as Hart, Tsongas, and Bradley, Brownstein notes, "run better among voters with college degrees run well in the Northwest, the West Coast, and portions of the upper Midwest where wine track voters congregate. Warriors usually thrive in interior states such as Ohio, Missouri, or Tennessee, where college graduates constitute 40 percent or less of the Democratic electorate."

This is the pattern Barone found in Obama's battles with Clinton. "When I first noticed Obama's weak showings among Appalachians, I chalked them up, as many in the press will be inclined to do, to an antipathy to blacks," Barone allowed. But then he went back and compared the results from the Virginia primary race on February 12, with those in the gubernatorial election of 1989, in which Democrat Douglas Wilder defeated Republican Marshall Coleman to become the country's first black governor since Reconstruction. In the Appalachian precincts of western Virginia--which border both Kentucky and West Virginia--Wilder, a moderate Democrat with an air of authority, greatly outpolled Obama everywhere in the region. "Jacksonians in southwest Virginia showed no aversion to Wilder. Take Buchanan County, which runs along both West Virginia and Kentucky. In 1989, it voted 59 percent to 41 percent for Wilder." In February 2008, it voted for Clinton over Obama by 90 to 9. "Wilder lost what is now the Ninth Congressional District (long known as the Fighting Ninth) by a 53-percent-to-47-percent margin. But that is far less than the 59-percent-to-39-percent margin by which George W. Bush beat John Kerry in the district in November 2004 or the 65-percent-to-33-percent margin by which Clinton beat Obama there in February 2008. Jacksonians may reject certain kinds of candidates, but not because they're black," Barone concluded. "A black candidate who will join them in fighting against attacks on their family or their country is all right with them." And these results in general elections included Republicans and independents, who are more likely to vote against liberals, which makes the anti-Obama results from the Democratic primary voters--who were presumably not moved by the putative attack machine of conservative bigots--all the more striking. Obama's problem may be less that he is running while black than that he is running to be the first Academician elected as president, a category that is zero for eight in national contests thus far. He is peering into an abyss not of bias, but a large Jackson Hole of rejection by warrior voters. And this problem is more than skin deep.

Complicating all this are the disparate facts that the voters most imbued with warrior instincts--southerners, rural voters, and many white ethnics--are those most suspected (by Newsweek) of harboring deep racial bias, and that the first credible black candidate to be running for president of the world's greatest power is also one of the least Jacksonian candidates who ever drew breath. The interesting counterexample of course would be to see a black Jacksonian run against a white Academician, and if Colin Powell had chosen to challenge Bill Clinton in 1996, we might have seen this take place. (Whether the black warrior could have been nominated is another whole story, as the centrism that would have made him electable would have given rise to hysterics in the party's activist base.) The charming, war-tested moderate Powell would have presented a fair test of whether an ultra-acceptable black candidate could have been undermined by prejudice. The charming, untested, and left wing Obama will not.

Now let us imagine a different candidate, one who looks like Barack Obama, with the same mixed-race, international background, even the same middle name. But this time, he is Colonel Obama, a veteran of the war in Iraq, a kick-ass Marine with a "take no prisoners" attitude, who vows to follow Osama bin Laden to the outskirts of Hell. He comes from the culture of the military (the most color blind and merit-based in the country), and not the rarefied air of Hyde Park. He goes to a church with a mixed-race congregation and a rational preacher. He has never met Bill Ayers, and if he did he would flatten him. He thinks arugula is a town near Bogota and has Toby Keith on his favorites list. Would he strike no chords at all in Jacksonian country? Does anyone think he would lose 90 to 9 in Buchanan County? Or lose West Virginia by 41 points? For those Jacksonians who would be fine with a black man in the White House (not as tiny a group as Newsweek thinks), Colonel Obama is the one we are waiting for. When we will get him is anyone's guess.

Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.