Just hours before Barack Obama’s dramatic press conference in which he separated himself from his former pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, the New York Times ran a story which takes a closer look at former President Bill Clinton and finds him regaining some of his former control over his wife’s campaign. This may not be the best development for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Both Bill Clinton and Jeremiah Wright have undermined the two Democratic candidates by drawing too much attention to themselves. Obama’s critics called on him to jettison his former pastor, which he did in his dramatic press conference Tuesday afternoon. In taking that step, Obama runs the risk that he will offend his African American constituents who respect pastors and the bond between pastor and parishioner.
But in his press conference Obama chose to take that risk because, as he put it, the Jerimiah Wright who spoke in Washington Monday is not the man he has known in the past. Obama said the Wright remarks made him angry but they also left him feeling sad.
When Wright told the National Press Club audience in Washington that the attacks on him were attacks on the black church, the charge resonated with many African American church goers. But It did not impress the secular pundits who don’t have any idea what Psalm 137 (the text for one of Wright’s more controversial sermons) has to do with the price of a gallon of gas. So, Wright had to go. And since Wright is retiring as pastor from the United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago, he is also leaving the congregation of which the Obama are members.
Hillary Clinton has a different problem. Clearly, she intends to hold on to her husband, even though his frequent outbursts during campaign stops have been harmful to her.
She knows voters appreciate Bill Clinton. Many still actually love him the way they love a wayward nephew. They know his behavior patterns and they have learned to live with them, just as his wife has.
The Wright phenomenon, on the other hand, was new to the voters and most did not like what they were hearing and seeing. Why was Obama’s pastor speaking in such harsh language after Obama had defended him in his highly praised Philadelphia speech on race?
The answer lies in a theological reality, which pastor Wright knows as well as any man. Wright allowed his pride to dominate his better judgment. He is a proud man, a Marine veteran. His pride was making life difficult for Obama. Wright, as he repeated several times, is a pastor, while Obama is a politician. But when Wright told the Press Club audience about his military service he added a slap at Vice President Cheney’s lack of military service. That was a political dig, not the words of a pastor.
Wright cannot have it both ways. He demands pastoral immunity, but violates that immunity when he uses personal and negative political rhetoric against the vice president. Before he separated himself from Wright, he had invited pundit retaliation and distressed warnings from media supporters.
The Obama press conference, which comes after days of negative reporting on Obama and Wright, is bound to affect the North Carolina and Indiana voters on May 6. But in what way? This latest development could swing voters back toward Obama or it could cut into his strong support from African American voters.
Next Tuesday, look for Obama to win in North Carolina, but by what margin, it is still too early to determine. African American voters may resent his statement against his former pastor. And the white voters may not yet be sure if they are ready to separate Obama from Wright. Obama will, nevertheless, win in North Carolina, receiving an uncertain, but still high percentage of African American votes. He will also run strongly in the university triangle around Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham.
Before Obama’s decision to reject Wright because of Wright’s recent behavior, the polls were beginning to suggest a narrow win for Clinton in Indiana. But Obama’s Tuesday decision to separate himself from Wright could change that outcome.
It is important to remember, however, that in the May 6 primaries, whichever candidate “wins”, the media reports will be based on popular votes won. The delegate totals will be, again as in past primaries, separated by narrow margins, because of the proportional system used by the Democrats.
This leaves Obama with two fewer states to worry about and that much closer to reaching June 3 ahead in the delegate count, although he will be short of the 2024 delegates he needs to win the nomination. The super delegates could step in at this point with enough of them giving the nomination to Obama because he will have won the majority of the pledged delegates.
Or, they could overturn the pledged total and hand the nomination to Clinton, a nomination which would be tainted by the outrage which will be felt within the African American population. Can the Democrats afford to offend this major political base? I don’t think the super delegates will do this. Many have lived through the eight years of a Clinton White House and have already seen that movie. They want, well, they want a change.
If the super delegates think Clinton has a better chance of winning against John McCain, they might give the nomination to her. I doubt this, because many of the super delegates will be on the ballot themselves November 6. In those districts and states where the African American vote is significant, congressional candidates and candidates for governor are not going to risk losing their local races in order to give the Clintons a third term in the White House.
(For readers unfamiliar with the modern development of the Democratic Party nominating process, I have written elsewhere that the super delegate and the pledged delegate system evolved in response to the earlier white male political control of the process. That evolution began with the 1972 convention and continues through the current 2008 nominating convention.)