In the final stages of the Democrats’ failing, flailing midterm campaigns, candidates and their allies exposed President Obama’s heart-breaking failure in pursuit of the primary goal that made him president: healing the bitter divisions between black and white in America. Instead of affirming the ringing declaration that “we are one people” that electrified the country in his convention keynote address of 2004, the president and his allies have fanned fear, rage and resentment in the black community in a desperate ploy to spur African-American turnout and prolong Harry Reid’s reign of error as majority leader.
The last-minute Democratic appeals to a sense of grudge and victimhood amount to such shameless race baiting that even The New York Times and Politico, hardly bastions of conservative sentiment, expressed their implicit disapproval. “The images and words they are using are striking for how overtly they play on fears of intimidation and repression,” writes Jeremy W. Peters in the Times. James Hohmann at Politico notes that the radio ads, mailers and flyers have been “designed to escape widespread notice. Operatives are taking provocative messages that mass audiences might find offensive and targeting them at African American audiences.”
One example of this campaign involves a shocking attack on Thom Tillis, GOP nominee for the US Senate in North Carolina. In a radio ad playing exclusively on black radio stations, the female narrator solemnly intones: “Tillis even led the effort to pass the type of ‘stand your ground’ laws that caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.” While the New York Times noted that Tillis was not, in fact, an ardent supporter of the law in question, it failed to address the more outrageous element in this dubious charge: the idea that a decision by the Florida legislature, rather than the recklessness and panic of George Zimmerman, caused the death of Trayvon.
In Kentucky, the campaign of Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes ran a radio ad featuring Georgia Powers, a black female member of the State Senate. She baldly declares, “Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are trying to take away our right to vote.” Whether one supports or opposes voter ID laws and tighter restrictions on early voting, this unexplained and unsupported claim bears no connection with reality. Most importantly, Mitch McConnell is a senator in the federal government while the Constitution leaves regulation of polling places and registration requirements to the states. Moreover, states that have already implemented voter identification requirements showed no decline in black participation, with Obama’s presence on the ballot pushing African American turnout to historic highs in both 2008 and 2012. Yes, some state-level changes might make voting less convenient, but no fair-minded observer could possibly characterize these minor reforms as “trying to take away our right to vote.”
Meanwhile, a flier in Georgia pictures two adorable black toddlers holding up cardboard signs pleading “Don’t Shoot,” with the headline, “If You want to Prevent Another Ferguson in Their Future…” Inside, the brochure suggests that the answer to protecting the innocents involves voting for Democratic candidates. though it makes no attempt to explain how casting ballots for rich white liberals would somehow keep poor black kids out of harm’s way. Finally, a leaflet in North Carolina touts the Democratic incumbent together with a grisly, antique photo of a brutal lynching. “If Kay Hagan doesn’t win,” it warns, “Then Obama’s impeachment will begin.”
What would the president say if asked about the use of these themes to scare black voters into backing his party? Could he honestly condone suggestions that Republican legislators “caused” the death of Trayvon Martin, or favored “taking away our right to vote” and sadistic lynchings? How would he square these bleak, paranoid messages with the “audacity of hope” theme that characterized his first presidential campaign?
The problem for the president and his party is that the reality of the last six years has shattered the optimistic mood that briefly prevailed at the dawn of the Obama era. For the black community, Democratic leadership has failed to deliver on its grand promises, with the economic and social gaps between white and black growing larger rather than shrinking under the nation’s first non-white president. African Americans still face an unemployment rate that’s literally double that of their white neighbors while falling even further behind with stagnant wages and fewer job opportunities.
Since Democrats can hardly cite their recent track record to inspire black people with hope and change they focus instead on scaring them with fear and chains. Fortunately, at least one youthful African American Senate candidate showed the courage to decry such tactics in eloquent terms. “Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes,” he thundered. “Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
That young Senate candidate was, of course, Barack Obama just ten years ago, when he first became a national figure by delivering the keynote address at the convention that nominated John Kerry. The exercise of re-reading his words now, in the midst of his party’s involvement in the shabbiest exploitation of racial fears in recent years, the contrast counts as far worse than embarrassing; it’s wrenchingly painful, in fact, even tragic. The president has aligned himself with precisely the sort of “spin masters and negative ad peddlers” he used to denounce. Whether or not the administration loses control of the Senate next week, it’s already obvious that it’s lost its soul.
A version of this column appeared at TruthRevolt.org on October 31, 2014.