Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Obama Bargain

While we await Obama’s speech on race, religion and politics today--sure the make-or-break moment of his campaign, more crucial to his chances than JFK’s speech on his Catholic faith in Dallas in 1960--don’t miss Shelby Steele’s column in today’s Wall Street Journal. Sample:

How to turn one’s blackness to advantage? The answer is that one "bargains." Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against him. And whites love this bargain -- and feel affection for the bargainer -- because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist.

Obama has a very tiny needle to thread with today’s speech.

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Obama's already got the right symbols working for him: a historic venue, Philadelphia, and a site devoted to America's history, the National Constitution Center, which is just a block away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. His task will be to call attention to how America's practice has not always lived up to her principles, and how this has always been a front-burner problem for black Americans. This will be his way of putting his pastor's comments in the proper context, while shifting ever so nimbly and quickly to the broader question of how Americans today should think about race and equality. To his credit, Bill Clinton said in his 1st Inaugural Address that there was nothing wrong with America that could not be fixed by what was right with America. This ought to be Obama's theme, and if he really wants to talk about the "audacity of hope" (yes, plenty of allusions there), he should be bold enough to quote the former president verbatim--and credit him for the line. Let's see Hillary spin that one!.

Forget your "Sister Souljah moments"; Obama has a chance to get America talking about race that rivals Martin Luther's King's "I Have a Dream" speech, though he does not have the benefit of a civil rights bill percolating in Congress. Alas, it is unlikely he will be able to capitalize on it, as his Democratic bona fides will prevent him from teaching us about how un-American affirmative action is, along with other race-driven policies and sentiments. As Shelby Steele put it, Obama is "a bound man"--as I understand it, bound by a party that will not let him teach America about how true individual freedom is cultivated and secured in a self-governing nation. He remains at best, as someone else put it back in 2004, "a Republican soul trapped inside a Democrat's body."

Addendum: Here's a quote from an Obama speech in Indiana last Saturday that I wouldn't be surprised to find resurfacing in his speech today:

"We've got a tragic history when it comes to race in this country. We've got a lot of pent-up anger and bitterness and misunderstanding. ... This country wants to move beyond these kinds of things."

Reminder: The National Constitution Center is the site of a Democratic debate to be held on April 16, the week before the Pennsylvania primary.

With the Obama cause célèbre, aren't we all mistakenly projecting the mental and political landscape of the Democratic party onto the nation as a whole?

Yes, Democratic voters are interested in elevating Obama -- either simply to see a black person way up there in American politics (black Democrats) or to feel righteous and relieved of the presumed burden of racism (white Democrats). These joint responses express the prevailing emotions and dogma of Democrats: either group identity politics or the noble condescension of affirmative action (so long as it doesn't really threaten the professional or political status of whites [other than, alas, the Clintons]).

What about the rest of the country, the 60% of the electorate that does not regularly vote Democrat, and that couldn't and wouldn't vote in the Democratic primary? When their vote comes, will they really choose a candidate, especially such a political lightwight, such an otherwise generic liberal, based on Democrats' political psychodrama?

Is any of this going to be newsworthy after the conventions, after the institutional occasion for all this Democratic soul-searching has passed?

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