Last week, John Sununu lost his perch as one of the Mitt Romney campaign’s leading cable news talking head surrogates when he surmised that the reason former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed President Obama again this year is because both men are African-American. While, as I wrote, there were other, perhaps more compelling reasons for Powell to back the president, liberals seized on Sununu’s statement as evidence of Republican racism. The race theme resurfaced again yesterday when liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan said on ABC’s “This Week” that the potential return of Virginia and Florida to the Republican column this year (along with likely GOP pickup North Carolina that he failed to mention) would mean the revival of “the Confederacy.”
Sullivan’s rather simplistic thesis was quickly shot down by George Will who pointed out that it was more likely that the whites who voted for Obama in 2008 but who won’t this year are judging the president on his performance in office rather than having become racist in the last four years. That’s obvious, but the willingness to jump on Sununu and to start talking about the Confederacy is no accident. In an election in which the president seems to be losing independents, Democrats desperately need voters to think more about Barack Obama’s historic status as the first African-American president and less about the record that he can’t run on. The president’s difficult electoral predicament is not a function of prejudice but the fact that more Americans are looking beyond race rather than obsessing about it.
Race is the original sin of American history, and anyone who attempted to argue that it no longer plays a role in our society is being disingenuous. But while the 2008 election did not mean it disappeared, it did remove it as an explanation for the voting behavior of the majority of Americans. While it is possible that some people will not vote for the president because of prejudice against his race, it is hardly a sign of bias to notice that there are many Americans — both white and black — who believe the symbolism of his ascendancy to the presidency is an act of historic justice that is an argument in itself for voting for Obama. Indeed, the president has very little to recommend his re-election other than party loyalty on the part of Democrats and lingering good feelings about what happened in 2008.
By contrast, Sununu is not a particularly sympathetic figure, and there are those of us who still bitterly recall that when he was the governor of New Hampshire he was the only U.S. governor who refused to repudiate the United Nations’ infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution. But rehashing his past, including the ethical problems that led the first President Bush to fire him from his post as White House chief of staff, as the New York Times’ Charles Blow did this past weekend during the course of a column that attempted to first brand Sununu a racist and then to smear Romney as one by association, tells us more about the Obama campaign than it does about the GOP. That canard is a disreputable political tactic and nothing more.
The remarkable thing about both the 2008 and the 2012 elections is how unremarkable we have come to see the idea of an African-American running for and then serving as president. The decline in the president’s fortune has nothing to do with the revival of prejudice but is, instead, a result of the sober judgment of a significant portion of white Americans that the man they voted for in 2008 has not merited re-election. Republicans are asking the American people to assess the president on his record, not his race. It is, unfortunately, the Democrats who are the ones who are attempting inject race into the campaign.