The Democratic Party, as assembled and packaged at its national convention, does not seem especially proud that it is about to become the first major American political party to nominate an African-American to be president.
Pragmatism, tactics and spin aside, this is disappointing and will add a footnote of embarrassment to this historic event. And in the grand sweep of history, there is no doubt that 2008 will be remembered for this racial milestone. Democrats should be proud, not sneaky. And the rest of the country should be proud as well; I think it is.
But that doesn't mean Barack Obama will win, of course.
Here is the discomforting situation: If Obama were not black, if he were the same man (man, not woman) in white skin, he would most certainly be far ahead in the polls. Knowing this, Democrats — understandably desperate to win — feel they must de-emphasize race and hence the historic moment of the nomination.
There are a couple problems with this. Despite the reigning wisdom of marketers and misleaders, it is very difficult to disguise obvious things. Do the Democrats really believe that they can somehow alter how voters perceive the racial angle by tinkering with the speaker's lineup and "messaging" at the convention?
Well, yes they do.
Giant corporations of every ilk can change consumer behavior by sticking the absurd claim that "We care about you" into television advertisements and telephone "please hold" messages. I would venture to say there is not one American who believes any large corporation actually cares about him individually. But this cultural bacterium is anti-malarkey resistant. So it lives on, ineffectual, but obnoxious.
Similarly, people know spin and tactics when they see them. I think there are very few voters who wouldn't make perfectly good pundits on cable television these days. We understand political tactics just like we understand tactics in sports. Football fans understand every aspect of the game, the business, the offseason, the media and marketing. So do voters. We are all decoders, deconstructors and de-spinners today, thank goodness.
So tactically, I would argue that the Democratic Party should embrace its historic accomplishment and give voters solid cause to embrace a momentous political event. They shouldn't be nonchalant about history; they shouldn't try to be tricky. It won't work, and it is undignified.
This argument can be skirted by arguing with my claim that Obama would be doing better in the polls and, in fact, have a better shot at victory if he were not African-American. We sometimes act as if it is rude or insensitive to make that point, even if the evidence is strong. I don't quite understand that. Is pretending race is not a major factor taking the moral high ground?
Political scientists have gotten quite good at predicting presidential elections based not on head-to-head polls but on more fundamental conditions. All the predictive models say the "out" party, the Democrats, should win in 2008 because of the unpopularity of the incumbent, the rotten economy, prevailing economic pessimism and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It should be a blowout.
But McCain and Obama were in a statistical tie at the start of the Democratic convention. (Remember, even Michael Dukakis was up 17 points over Bush the Elder in 1988.)
Now, there are factors at play other than race, obviously. Obama is undercredentialed by post-JFK standards, though not by earlier measures. He does strike many as elitist. McCain is an attractive personality, well-known and backed by a party that knows how to win elections.
These are not, however, huge new variables. Race is.
There is not much point in chastising the Democratic Party for its lack of guts on this. It certainly is competing against a party that has an even more prestigious track record when it comes to skullduggery and doublespeak.
But I would hope that as voters listen to Obama's acceptance speech and watch his campaign, they will do so with pride no matter how they ultimately vote. And I would hope that voters will take a second look at their hearts and assumptions, their pride and their prejudices, as they weigh their votes.
It is natural and reasonable to expect more of the voters than the parties.