Hillary’s Pro-Active Political Jiu-Jitsu

January 14, 2008

Hillary is playing with fire on the race issue. What ground she gained by playing the gender card while denying it, she might lose by playing the race card while denying it.

There is no principle the Clintons pretend to stand for that they will not abandon in pursuit of political power — power they insist they need to advance those abandon-able principles. So it is with the issue of race.

Until recently, Hillary had employed essentially a two-pronged strategy in her presidential primary campaign. The first was to depict her main opponent, Barack Obama, as an eloquent and gifted speaker but also as a candidate with no experience, no record, no substance and no plan to match his lofty rhetoric. The second, developed out of desperation to staunch her post-Iowa bleeding, was to play the gender card by appealing to women voters through showing her supposedly vulnerable, “human” side.

Now, she has also invoked the race issue, something only a liberal or Democratic candidate would even think about doing. First, she trotted out a well-known African American, Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, to make an unmistakable yet deniable allusion to Obama’s self-admitted youthful experimentation with drugs.

On the stump with Clinton in Columbia, S.C., Johnson said, “To me, as an African American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we were so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood — and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in the book … “

This isn’t just significant because it’s the second time a high-profile Clinton ally used the drug-smear against Obama. It’s about more than drugs. It’s also a subtle effort to steal black voters from Obama by having a prominent black endorse Hillary’s theme that she was actually working on issues important to blacks, while Obama was otherwise predisposed. All the while, Hillary pretends to be an innocent bystander.

Next, Hillary refined her race strategy further by allowing an unspoken racial component to loom large in her awkward reference to the respective contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson to the civil rights movement.

Hillary said that MLK’s dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This tied in perfectly to Hillary’s campaign theme contrasting her supposed experience with Obama’s empty, unproven rhetoric.

But is it merely an innocuous coincidence that in Hillary’s allusion, both MLK and Obama are African Americans and LBJ and Hillary are the white people who are presumably necessary to get things done? Why else would she choose the MLK and LBJ example? Hillary might be insensitive, but she’s not tone deaf.

I am truly not trying to be provocative or incendiary here, and it’s sad that we even have to raise these questions, but it’s entirely appropriate given the Democrats’ insistence on playing identity politics and the Clinton’s history of utilizing unconscionably dirty tactics born of cold political calculations.

The likelihood of coincidence is further reduced by what followed. When the press started asking her about her MLK/LBJ statement, she immediately accused the Obama campaign of injecting racial tension into the contest. Yet Obama forces, as far as we know, hadn’t yet responded to her statement.

“This is an unfortunate story line the Obama campaign has pushed very successfully,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I don’t think this campaign is about gender, and I sure hope it’s not about race.”

But you’ll note that Obama had not used the race card against Hillary. Hillary brought up the subject herself and then falsely accused Obama of having raised it so that she could deftly “respond” and perhaps neutralize his presumed race advantage with Democratic voters.

Hillary was employing a tactic I’ll call preemptive, pro-active political Jiu-Jitsu. The art of Jiu-Jitsu involves using an attacker’s energy against him rather than directly opposing it. But Hillary modified the Jiu-Jitsu technique by fabricating her opponent’s attack so that she could react and score points — on race.

She used the same modified Jiu-Jitsu approach in New Hampshire in appealing to women. She skillfully exploited the near-tear moment to show her human side and then falsely accused mostly unnamed men of sexism for saying she looked weak and unpresidential (who said that?), thereby appealing to women for solidarity against this largely fictitious attack.

But employing this tactic on race is far riskier and might backfire against this very white former first lady, even if she is married to the “first black president.”