Barack Obama has tried to rise above being "the black candidate' and even above a merely Democratic candidate. He claims to be best qualified to bring all Americans together and prides himself on his success in bring Democrat and Republican together in the Illinois state senate. The Clinton campaign has thrown cold water on at lease one aspect of that "uniting".
Sergio Bendixen, the Latino pollster for Hillary Clinton, was quoted in January that Hispanics will not support a black candidate. This led to charges of introducing "identity politics" into the race for the Democratic nomination. James Traub (NY Times Sunday Magazine) takes off from that point to reflect on whether Latinos do or do not support blacks for office and whether they will or will not in the choice between Obama and Clinton. The press and experts had generally conceded the Hispanic vote to Clinton, as was demonstrated in the California primary and the Nevada caucuses. But they also saw a generational grape emerging, younger Hispanics going for Obama. Texas will tell on Tuesday how the standard wisdom holds up.
Traub's essay, however. is more than a reflection on the Democratic race. He goes further into the issue of "identity politics". There is undoubtedly some of it. Blacks, after fretting over Obama's credential as a "real black', have sung overwhelmingly toward him. In part it's racial pride; in part Obama sounds like their preacher. But many blacks are also attracted by the fact that he is drawing support across the board and seem to be the hope of unifying people beyond race, gender, income -- as Traub puts it, "he speaks a transnational, indeed nonracial language."
Why are Hispanics loyal to Clinton? If indeed they have been for many reasons. Bendixen believes in part because they won't vote for a black candidate. They are liable, then, to drift to the Republicans, who are on the verge of nominating a candidate more sympathetic on immigration. Traub doesn't entirely buy that. The wounds the GOP gave themselves through their nativism precludes an drift. Besides, Hispanic and black have been bitterly divided in primaries before, only to come together in the general election. Again Traub underscores the growing significance of the Hispanic vote. While he sets aside idealistic notions of a"black-brown coalition" founded on their mutual suffering as seen in Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition, he notes that black leaders, despite real competition for jobs and housing, continue to be responsive to Hispanic grievances. This is out of their memory of their own people's suffering. Traub seems to feel that Barack Obama's approach is the way to go.
This is not an endorsement of Obama over Clinton or, for that matter, over McCain. Traub's essay raises issues that have to be addressed in the election and after -- especially with the growing power of the Hispanic voter. For both the elections of 2008 will be a crossroads.