Back in March, in the midst of the furor over controversial remarks by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama called for a national conversation on race. “Race,” said the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, “is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.”
But since that time, Obama has shut down the dialogue by largely ignoring the most troubling and vexing issues of race relations in America. He has not opened a national conversation on affirmative action, racial profiling, residential segregation, or on racial disparities in health care, incarceration rates and access to credit. He has not probed the issues of crime, gangs and corruption in black communities.
Obama has followed the lead of Bill Cosby in extolling the virtues of responsible fatherhood — staking a safe, responsible political position that meets the approval of blacks as well as whites. According to a survey conducted by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in 2007, 80% of black respondents agreed with Cosby’s “comments regarding personal responsibility within the black community.”
The Obama campaign has also sought to preempt any Swift Boat-style attack that directly or indirectly incites racial prejudice. At a recent fundraiser Obama warned, “They’re going to try to make you afraid of me — ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name… and did I mention he’s black?” With respect to the possible advent of racially divisive ads, one of Obama’s top advisers, David Axelrod said, “We’re to be aggressive about pushing back on anything that we feel is inappropriate or misleading.”
This is just smart politics; it raises no risks for the candidate, and opens no fresh wounds. Obama has shied away from controversial racial issues at a time when 46% of whites and 63% of blacks say race relations are “not so good” or “poor,” according to a Washington Post/ABC poll conducted in June. About a third of both white and black respondents admitted to feelings of personal race prejudice.
A similar silence has emerged from John McCain’s campaign on the most sensitive issue of his campaign: age. If McCain, who turns 72 in August, prevails in the general election, he will become the oldest non-incumbent candidate to be elected president. Ronald Reagan was 69 when first elected in 1980, and 73 when reelected in 1984.
In dealing with the age issue, McCain has borrowed from both Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like Reagan, the presumptive Republican nominee he has used humor to diffuse the issue. In an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” McCain quipped, “I ask you, what should America be looking for in a president? Certainly someone who is very, very, very old.”
Like Roosevelt, who was dogged by rumors of failing health during his final presidential campaign in 1944, McCain apparently hopes that his performance on the campaign trail will dispel any doubts about his fitness for the presidency. To demonstrate his continued vigor, Roosevelt embarked on a strenuous campaign tour in October 1944, riding in an open car through crowded streets and delivering campaign speeches with great style and panache.
Like Obama on race, McCain has shrewdly sought to preempt any criticism that suggests he is too old for the presidency. When Obama said in May that McCain is “losing his bearings,” one of the Republican’s top aides, Mark Salter, shot back by arguing that the Democrat’s word were “a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain’s age as an issue. This is typical of the Obama style of campaigning.” The McCain camp has also tried to turn around the age issue by pointing to their candidate’s experience and contrasting him to the young and untested Obama.
So what is it that underlies the candidates’ reluctance to directly address the sensitive issues of race and age?
In part, our consultant-driven, scripted campaigns pressure candidates to avoid controversial issues. The media is likewise complicit in this lowest-common-denominator politics, with its “gotcha” coverage and slighting of policy matters. The frenzied media response to Obama’s musings about “bitter” voters in Pennsylvania sound a loud, clear warning for candidates about the pitfalls of candid, unscripted commentary on sensitive issues.
There is, however, a deeper and more positive reason for restraint on these matters. Our greatest political leaders have all been pragmatic visionaries. They had big dreams for the country, but also understood the wisdom of Lyndon Johnson’s admonition: “You have to get the election certificate before you can be a statesman.”
Obama, the practical politician, knows that circumstances strongly favor his reelection. George W. Bush has the highest negative ratings of any president in 70 years, the war in Iraq remains unpopular, the economy is weak and gas prices are high. Although racial issues are difficult to poll, nearly 90% of whites surveyed recently by the Washington Post and ABC News said they would be comfortable with a black president. By better than two to one, whites agreed that Obama’s candidacy will do more to help than to hurt American race relations.
Obama does not want to upset his favorable situation by raising touchy racial issues that could undermine his standing with white voters. John F. Kennedy, with whom Obama has been compared, famously said, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.” Substitute black for Catholic, and you have the pragmatics of the Obama campaign.
McCain has more of an incentive to address the question of age. According to the recent survey by the Washington Post and ABC News, 40% of respondents said the age of the candidate is a very important or somewhat important issue in their choice for president. But the campaign has decided that any direct confrontation with the age issue would hurt the candidate politically.
Many of our leaders have failed to balance the practical and the ideal in politics. Richard Nixon’s obsession with the pragmatics of hoarding power led to the Watergate scandal that destroyed his presidency. Herbert Hoover and George H. W. Bush were practical men, but they lacked what the latter called “the vision thing.” Conservative Barry Goldwater and liberal George McGovern were inspiring visionaries, but they lacked the practical touch. Only our greatest leaders, like Roosevelt and Reagan, have attained the right balance.
In 2008, as in 1932 and 1980, most Americans are unhappy with both their incumbent president and the condition of their country. The challenge for Obama and McCain is to demonstrate that, like Roosevelt and Reagan, they have the rare mix of lofty vision and practical skill that is needed to achieve lasting, positive change.
Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, is the author of “The Keys to the White House: A Surefire Guide to Predicting the Next President” (Rowman & Littlefield) and “White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement” (Atlantic Monthly Press).