When It Comes to the Big Question, Game Change Punts

The 2008 campaign diary Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is more gossipy than analytical (“What an a--hole,” Hillary Clinton is overheard muttering about Barack Obama. “Am I the only one who sees the arrogance?”). But once the initial round of sampling its many delightful tidbits is over it may be time to question some of the larger issues implicitly raised by the book. The authors, being shoe-leather reporters, often seem to miss important implications. One of them is: What role did race play in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign?

Plenty. Though no one in the book ever suggests, or even implies, that skin color might make someone less qualified to be president (such a suggestion would indeed be absurd), and though the success of a highly liberal black presidential candidate in states John Kerry couldn’t win like North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana would appear to prove that enmity toward blacks isn’t much of a factor in American politics, race was an important weapon -- wielded by Barack Obama.

Game Change shows race helping Obama in significant ways. Opponents repeatedly become leery of running negative ads about him, fearing that bringing up entirely factual information about Obama could be interpreted as racist. Hillary Clinton, for instance, is seen pondering Obama’s less-than-crystal-clear position on the Iraq War. (Remember that in 2004, when the Iraq War appeared to be going well, Obama said, “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” Obama also then said “I don’t know” when asked how he would have voted on the war authorization measure had he been a senator at the time.) When Obama is seen as pandering again, this time to conservative Democrats in Nevada, Hillary suggests running a TV commercial portraying Obama as a chameleon -- and is immediately shot down. No mention of color can be made. “Oh Gawwwd,” she replies. “Give me a break.”

Similarly, no opponent of Obama felt safe mentioning his admitted cocaine use -- because some might associate cocaine use with blacks, and such a mention would therefore be racist. During the primary season, even making an oblique cocaine mention by arguing that it was something the nasty Republicans would be sure to bring up in the fall (even though they didn’t) was seen, by the Clinton camp, as a PR disaster.