Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The voluntary withdrawal by scandal plagued New Mexico governor Bill Richardson from the Commerce Secretary post drew instant and angry demands from some Latino leaders for Obama to pick another Latino to replace Richardson. In making the demand they fanned two myths. One is that Obama hasn’t appointed enough Latinos to his staff and cabinet posts. The other is that Latino votes are mainly why he bagged the White House. Obama transition officials quickly and correctly noted that Obama has appointed more Latinos to senior positions than Bush or Clinton. And that’s even before he’s taken office.
But it’s the myth that Latinos tipped the victory scale for him that’s even more self-serving. Latinos did vote in bigger numbers and in a higher percentage for Obama than Democratic presidential loser John Kerry in 2004. Their vote did help seal the win for Obama in Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. Bush won Colorado and Florida in 2000 and all three states in 2004. But the electoral math shows that even if Obama had lost both states he still would have beaten Republican rival John McCain.
Pennsylvania, Ohio, and arguably North Carolina were the must win states. Bush won two of the three states in 2000 and 2004 and cinched the White House. This time Obama won all three. If he had lost Pennsylvania and/or Ohio the outcome might have been far different. Blacks make up twenty to thirty percent of the vote in these three states. They gave Obama the crucial edge there. The more than 15 million black voters made up more than twenty percent of the overall Democratic vote in 2008. They gave Obama 96 percent of their vote. This was an all-time percentage high for a Democratic presidential candidate. If black voters had not turned the Democratic primaries into a virtual holy crusade for Obama and if Obama had not openly in the South Carolina primary and subtly in primaries thereafter stoked the black vote, he would have been just another failed Democratic also ran presidential candidate. The fight for the White House would have been between McCain and Hillary Clinton.
In the 2008 election Latino voters increased their vote total by a modest one percent from nine to ten million votes from 2004. Even then Latino leaders and voters were glacially slow to warm up to Obama. In the Democratic primaries they overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton. In the general election many Latino voters still expressed deep ambivalence and doubt about Obama. McCain got nearly one third of the Latino vote. This is pretty much what other GOP presidential candidates typically get from Latino voters. Bush’s top heavy Latino vote total in 2004 was a political aberration.
The Latino leaders that pump the myth that they elected Obama do it in part to leverage more numbers and influence in the Obama administration, and in part to puff up the notion that Latinos are now the major ethnic power broker in national politics. Latinos certainly deserve their fair share of Obama appointments and cabinet posts; they need a big voice in his administration on issues from health care to immigration to Latin American relations. But that’s far different than turning the quest for Obama appointments into a numbers game, a quota game. Then inferring that if Obama doesn’t play ball call him a disappointment or that he’s ignoring Latino interests. Obama must not listen to that talk. It does him, his administration and Latinos a disservice.
Latinos certainly are well on the path to becoming major players in national politics, but blacks have been major political players for many years. The black vote has been the Democrats trump card in every election for the past half century, win or lose. They gave Kerry 85 percent of their vote. Latinos by contrast gave Kerry only 53 percent of their vote. Black voters have been so reliable, maybe too reliable, that Democrats have been repeatedly rapped for plantationism; that is for taking the black vote for granted and offering little tangible benefits in return for their unyielding support. Obama didn’t change that. He said little during the campaign about failing public schools, the HIV/AIDS plague, criminal justice racial disparities, and the lack of minority business initiatives and funding
Black voters and elected officials, though, wisely did not demand that he say and do more about these issues as the price for their game changing vote turnout. The Congressional Black Caucus, local and state black Democrats, and civil rights organizations passionately backed Obama in the general election. They pulled out all stops to get out the vote. If any group deserved bragging rights for the Obama win they do. They would be right to demand even more staff and cabinet appointments from Obama. They haven’t demanded that. The Latino leaders that are sweating Obama to appoint more Latinos solely because they are Latinos should do the same.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).