First, a quick show of hands: How many of you honestly thought we'd make it through this Democratic presidential primary without a bruising debate over race? Whether or not the Clintons were involved, this conversation is hardly shocking. And before it's over, it will likely grow more intense.
What is surprising, however, is how skillfully, and with how much brilliant calculation, and her husband steered the nomination campaign toward these turbulent waters. She's done nothing but win since this debate began and even if she loses on Saturday in South Carolina, she's framed the campaign in a way that lets her live to fight another day. Perhaps even more surprising has been the media's willingness to be played.
With South Carolina still in the distant future, Clinton stood in New Hampshire earlier this month and said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream only became realized when Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "It took a president to get it done." On the same day, her husband called media coverage of 's record on Iraq a "fairy tale."
Racism? It doesn't really matter now. The media pounced the day after Clinton's victory in New Hampshire, led by the New York Times editorial board, which declared Clinton an "angry" candidate who made the "baffling" and "peculiar" comments in her "zeal" to beat Obama in New Hampshire.
With that, the story took on a life of its own, evolving from coverage of those specific, isolated comments to a full-blown, unhinged debate over the Clintons' "race-based" campaign tactics and whether the country has moved past (or can move past) the politics of race. The chatter grew so hot, and words so loaded, that the South Carolina Democratic Party, preparing for its primary this weekend, canceled a forum on "Race in Southern Politics" scheduled for Wednesday.
The topic continues to dominate media coverage of the campaign. Every TV network has featured segments on race this week at the top of their nightly newscasts, and the cable nets have filled up entire hours on the topic. All of the country's top newspapers have run front-page stories this week examining race in the Democratic Party.
Nothing could be more troublesome to the Obama campaign, whose able team has labored tirelessly to package their candidate as, essentially, above and beyond race. Despite pleas from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson last fall, Obama declined to participate in a widely covered demonstration in Jena, La., fearing the photo-op would tie him to two civil rights leaders who have tried and failed to win the Democratic nomination. Of course he's black, he says, and is infinitely proud of his heritage. But, he hopes, that doesn't define him or his candidacy.
The day it does is the beginning of the end of his campaign. Unfortunately, that's the state of race and media in this country.
With a few able strokes, the Clintons have even managed to minimize the significance of the South Carolina primary, the first nomination contest where black voters will have a dominant voice. They've lowered expectations for Clinton and raised them for Obama, who will be challenged to parlay a win there Saturday into momentum by reporters who will surely frame it as a victory by a black candidate among black voters.
You don't think so? This is what NBC's Tim Russert said last Saturday night, describing the Clintons' campaign in South Carolina: "Bill Clinton's going to go door to door, church to church in South Africa.... I'm sorry, South Carolina."
And look, the Clintons say. No fingerprints!
All of this is, of course, going according to the plan designed by the Clintons, who since their initial comments in New Hampshire have sat back and let the media awkwardly manage this increasingly uncomfortable conversation. Sure, the Clintons have drawn boatloads of criticism from vocal advocates of racial tolerance. But what worries the Obama campaign more is the people who aren't talking.