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Skin Deep

Just how strong is black affection for the Clintons?

When Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign first began, there was reason to think she would be hard to beat in a primary. Despite her Iraq vulnerability and assorted baggage, she seemed to have an impenetrable bulwark in the black vote. “Bill Clinton’s popularity with blacks has been presumed to carry over to her and help her win the important South Carolina primary...and other similar Southern primaries,” explained Newsweek in November 2006. Newsweek wisely noted that the candidacy of Barack Obama could change that presumption. But, even after Obama joined the race, some Clinton advisers didn’t fret. Last January, one party strategist told Politico that “this is all about loyalty and the strength of relationships that the Clintons have engendered over the years. It’s going to be hard to look them in the face and say, ‘I can’t support you.’” 

At first, that seemed true. A CNN poll in October showed Hillary leading Obama among blacks nationally by a comfortable 57-31 margin. But, by mid- January, those same numbers had swung a stunning 52 points, leaving Obama with a 59-31 advantage. 

For the Clintonites, this turnabout has been a nasty surprise. One black Democratic operative told me the Hillary campaign did not distribute talking points on her civil rights record until this month. “They didn’t think it was going to be an issue,” according to the operative.  

What happened? In part, Iowa dispelled the assumption that racism made Obama unelectable. The Clinton campaign also alienated some blacks by striking allegedly racially charged chords like Obama’s cocaine use. But a look back at the Clinton years, and at Hillary’s own public persona, suggests that the black firewall may have been overstated from the start. 

BACK IN 1992, the Clintons were decidedly not heroes to black America. Bill ran on a platform of welfare reform. He was tough on crime, and some felt he gratuitously supported the execution of the brain-damaged African American killer Ricky Ray Rector on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. When Clinton scolded the obscure rapper Sister Souljah at a meeting of Jesse Jackson Sr.’s Rainbow Coalition, Jackson called it a “Machiavellian” gambit for white votes. That fall, Clinton carried 82 percent of the black vote––a low sum compared to other Democratic nominees. (In 1988, for instance, Mike Dukakis carried 89 percent of the black electorate.) 

Once in the White House, the Clintons continued to irritate African Americans. In 1993, they dumped their friend and Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier because of her ideas about racial reapportionment. By 1995, Jackson was complaining that Clinton had ignored civil rights issues and hinted at a primary challenge or independent presidential run. A major test came in 1995, when a Supreme Court ruling imperiled federal affirmative action programs. Under pressure from ascendant Republicans and his pollster Dick Morris, Clinton wavered, but ultimately he settled on his famous “mend it, don’t end it” formulation. 

But soon, the Clintons were clashing with black leaders again. In July 1996, Bill signed a tough welfare-reform bill crafted by the Gingrich Congress. Behind the scenes, Hillary supported his decision––a stance that ruptured her friendship with her one-time mentor, Children’s Defense Fund chairwoman Marion Wright Edelman, who called signing the bill “a great moral and practical wrong. “That fall, Clinton was reelected with another deflated 84 percent of the black vote. 

It wasn’t until the Lewinsky scandal that Clinton won over skeptics. Black voters appeared to sympathize with him as the target of a rigged right-wing prosecution and, moreover, feared a conservative power play that might threaten their political interests. On the House floor, Clinton’s African American lawyer, Cheryl Mills, even described impeachment as a threat to “civil rights.” 

At the height of impeachment, in a now-infamous New Yorker essay, Toni Morrison declared Bill “the first black president,” saying that he “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working- class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” He evinced his egalitarianism streak every time he rode around in a golf cart with Vernon Jordan or BET founder Bob Johnson. He even sought spiritual counseling from his old nemesis, Jesse Jackson. It mattered little that, on policy, Clinton still left many black elected leaders cold. As Al Sharpton put it, “We must show mercy on him that he didn’t show on us in the welfare bill and calling for the death penalty.” 

The outpouring for Bill seamlessly transferred to Hillary. In a 2005 focus group conducted by pollster Mark Mellman, eight of ten African American women named Hillary as their all-time political hero. But, in fact, black voters may have had little real sense of Hillary. “Nationally, most of what’s known about Hillary Clinton [among blacks] is that she was Bill Clinton’s first lady,” says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “But it’s not like African Americans had any first-hand experience with her.” 

And the sudden, mass defection to Obama suggests that Hillary’s black support may not have been so intense after all. Hillary, of course, doesn’t posses any of the cultural signifiers that Morrison touted. When Hillary spoke from the pulpit at an Alabama black church last spring, for instance, she drew ridicule for affecting a clumsy Southern accent. “She has no black characteristics whatsoever. She’s an uptight white wonk” raised in a lily-white Chicago suburb, says one neutral pollster tracking the race question. To connect with black voters, she reaches back three decades to recount her internship under Marion Wright Edelman. 

Without Bill Clinton’s cultural ties, her identity rests more on Bill Clinton’s record. And that’s where she begins to run into trouble. Even Clinton administration veterans like Christopher Edley, who advised the president on race, aren’t so sure that his old boss’s record can be counted as an overwhelming success. “There should be” a “reconsideration” of Clinton’s race legacy, Edley says.

While praising Clinton as “stunningly effective” on affirmative action and federal appointments, he adds that, “on several fronts, the marks should be low,” including crime legislation, education reform, Rwanda, and aids in Africa. Similarly, Harvard Law School professor (and occasional tnr contributor––see “The TNR Primary,” page 16) Randall Kennedy calls the impeachment outpouring “puzzling.” Kennedy, who is African American, has also written that Clinton favored the white middle class while offering blacks “chastising lectures that legitimated the essentially conservative notion that the predicament of the poor results primarily from their own conduct.” 

It wouldn’t be too hard for Hillary Clinton to argue past these criticisms. Rising black incomes and Bill’s pivotal defense of affirmative action would be strong hands to play. Yet she rarely does so, even in outlets like BET, apparently for fear of leaning too hard on Bill’s record. “Senator Clinton is running on her own record,” says campaign spokeswoman Traci Blunt. 

With black voters turning away from her, Clinton has found a new firewall: Latino voters, whose reputed tensions with African Americans will lead them, some Clintonites believe, to reflexively oppose Obama. Indeed, the black embrace of Obama poses a threat if it makes him appear to be the “black candidate,” perhaps driving away some white voters, too. If that happens, Hillary, in a twist few could have predicted, might win the nomination much as her husband first won the presidency––using the black electorate as a foil.

This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.