*Just what exactly did Bill Clinton say and do that was so racially terrible in the run-up to the infamous pivotal 2008 Democratic presidential contest in South Carolina? It’s worth revisiting only because Bill’s action has dogged Hillary Clinton for virtually every waking moment in the days after she flamed out to her then rival Barack Obama. And it still does. That’s so much the case that she still seems required to flagellate herself for it.
The specific remark that got the former president into hot water was that he reminded that Jesse Jackson had won the South Carolina Democratic primary in 1988 and didn’t do much after that. Clinton told the literal truth about the aftermath of Jackson’s South Carolina triumph. But it wasn’t the truth that was bothersome. It was the inference that Obama would suffer the same fate if he beat Hillary in that state’s primary. This was loudly denounced as a back hand racial slap at Obama and blacks. Clinton and Hillary had to spend endless hours afterwards defending, backpedalling and apologizing for it. None of it mattered, Hillary’s hitherto rock solid backing from black voters, especially black women voters, plunged faster than the Hindenburg.
So eight years later, one of the first things she felt she had to do after declaring her 2016 presidential candidacy was make a beeline to South Carolina and massage, schmooze, and reassure black Democrats that there would be no repeats of the supposed stumble in 2008 and that she would be a vigorous fighter against gender, income, and yes racial disparities. But mostly her mission was to brand herself as a presidential candidate who really cares about and will be fully responsive to racial issues, ala Obama, for black voters.
This is and isn’t necessary. Hillary doesn’t really have to prove herself, let alone apologize, for any alleged laggardness on racial matters for two reasons. One, if she wins, the Democratic presidential nod, she’ll face a GOP contender who has about as much chance of nabbing more than a relative handful of black votes as winning the grand prize lottery without buying a ticket.
The other is she’s a Democrat and blacks again will give what is etched in stone, 85 to 90 percent of their vote to whoever the Democratic candidate is. Given her name, track record on civil rights and women’s issues, and the considerable respect she has among many blacks, her black vote total may even bump up higher. A full-throated, all-out effort by Obama on her behalf on the campaign trail among black voters would guarantee that she gets that bump up.
Now here’s the problem part for Hillary with black voters. And this looming problem was the prime reason she made South Carolina a must first stop in her campaign. It’s also why she will spend countless hours in that state in the weeks running up to the primary there. South Carolina is a deep red, Republican state. And Black voters make up roughly fifty percent of the state’s Democrats. Even without Bill’s alleged loose lipped quip about Jackson, Obama would have almost certainly gotten the majority of the black vote in 2008. That would have virtually knocked Hillary out of the lead box and helped propel Obama on his winning march through the primaries especially in the South.
This time there’s no Obama or the stigma of Bill’s remarks to deal with. That doesn’t mean she is out of the woods. The issue isn’t winning the South Carolina Democratic primary with black votes. She will. The issue is how many black voters actually turn out. Her White House win hinges squarely on numbers. She will need a massive turnout in states with a large black vote bloc in the handful of swing states that include Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan to get some breathing space from her GOP rival.
There’s much chatter that Hillary can’t possibly come close to revving up the same fire in the belly passion, and enthusiasm for her campaign that Obama aroused among black voters. This may be true. After all, she will not make history as Obama did as the first African-American president. The prospect of being the first woman president won’t have anywhere near the same ring with black voters. However, Hillary is smart enough to know that in order to come reasonably close to stoking the requisite passion needed she’ll have to talk about race, and talk a lot about it. This means speaking out forcefully on police violence, mass incarceration, the crushing health and education racial disparities, and tackling head on the Great Depression level joblessness among young black males. A solid program to deal with these problems and her initiation of a free-wheeling challenge to Democrats and the GOP on them is crucial. This will do far more to speed her entrance to the White House than any rash of unnecessary racial mea culpas about Bill’s alleged racial sins.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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