Campaigning in the Disunited States of Dissing

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seem to have called a truce in a conflict over remarks that were interpreted as racially motivated. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It now appears that the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have decided to climb down from the heights of moral outrage to which both rose after their remarks were interpreted as racially motivated.

Perhaps the truce was prompted by Obama calling it all "silliness," giving Clinton the chance for a reciprocal gesture of reconciliation. Or maybe it was the calendar. The week that includes the birthday (Jan. 15) and national holiday (Jan. 21) honoring Martin Luther King Jr. might not be the best time for a fight over whose attitudes are the more racist.

It is also possible the moment of clarity came after former President Bill Clinton told black radio host Tom Joyner that "the only racist remark of the campaign" was the Obama camp calling Hillary "the senator from Punjab." The would-be "First Laddie" probably did not intend this to be the low point of the controversy, but it served that purpose all the same. Sometimes it takes a little reductio ad absurdum to reveal a pose off for what it is.

Still, the Democratic presidential campaign has taken on a bitter taste that may well linger. Democrats have been congratulating themselves a lot lately, not only on their polls and prospects but on the tone of their debates. The days since New Hampshire have brought a sobering reminder of how quickly interest group politics can put a coalition party asunder.

Parties are often built on grievances, including those of disparate groups. The pyre of resentments can be a source of energy, but it can also burn out of control. Primaries can turn one faction against another in competitions of victimhood that can only be destructive.

It may have been inevitable that a presidential season that featured the first truly competitive campaigns by a woman, an African American, a Hispanic American, an Italian American, a Mormon and an ordained Southern Baptist preacher would eventually produce some angry talk about who can and can't be president. In this campaign cycle, we take on not just the glass ceiling but the color bar and the religious test all at once. Two of the candidates are past 70, so let's throw in the age issue, too.

All this may be no more than the natural progression of our history, and a welcome change from the rigidly lookalike candidate fields of the past. But with the smugness about it all, you had to wonder when the smiles would fade.

The change may have come with that moment in the New Hampshire debate when the three male Democrats seemed to be ganging up on Hillary Clinton, or when Obama said she was "likable enough." It may have been when New Hampshire women perceived a little too much glee in all those basso profundo voices proclaiming the end of her campaign.

Right at that point, the senator from New York found an opening and reached straight through to the emotional core of many women voters. She was embattled, and it was unfair and it was an experience many women could relate to. Many a woman who may have fallen for Obama in the previous week, day or hour did a 180-degree turn almost without willing it and found herself back home with Hillary.

With New Hampshire lost, and with it a matchless opportunity to score an early knockout, the Obama campaign came back at the gender dynamic with a resentment case of its own. If the dissing of Hillary reminded women of injustices they had known in their own lives, then the putdowns the Clinton campaign employed against Obama might be reminiscent of racial unfairness as well.

So a campaign that had avoided such reactions unleashed its feelings about Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" language (applied to Obama's explanation of his shifts on Iraq, or more subliminally to the whole Obama campaign). It also took out after Hillary Clinton for noting the role President Johnson had to play in fulfilling Dr. King's dream of civil rights.

What seemed a strained reaction to many whites both in and out of the Clinton camp seemed entirely plausible to plenty of African Americans. Placed in the context of earlier remarks by Clinton campaign surrogates including a prominent New Hampshire figure who questioned Obama's electability because of youthful drug use the latest salvo seemed only to confirm a pattern.

Soon we had both campaigns accusing the other of "playing the race card," a phrase with such a virulent history in American politics that it immediately coarsens the debate.

Once an argument has been framed in this way, both sides become highly defensive about their defensiveness. And each exchange of emotional response begets more of the same.

To the candidates' credit, they seem ready to move on. We shall see if the truce holds. But we have seen a glimpse of how tense the Democrats' internal struggle could become in the weeks ahead, and how easy it would be for the party to sap its own momentum in a year of historic electoral opportunity.

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