By saying he will go door to door in black neighborhoods in South Carolina matching his civil rights record against Obama's, Bill Clinton emphasizes the pivotal role the black vote will play in the contest. And by openly matching his record on race with that of the black candidate, he invites more and more scrutiny focused on the race issue.
Of course, Clinton is going to lose that battle. Blacks in Nevada overwhelmingly backed Obama and will obviously do so again in South Carolina, no matter how loudly former President Clinton protests. So why is he making such a fuss over a contest he knows he's going to lose?
Precisely because he is going to lose it. If Hillary loses South Carolina and the defeat serves to demonstrate Obama's ability to attract a bloc vote among black Democrats, the message will go out loud and clear to white voters that this is a racial fight. It's one thing for polls to show, as they now do, that Obama beats Hillary among African-Americans by better than 4-to-1 and Hillary carries whites by almost 2-to-1. But most people don't read the fine print on the polls. But if blacks deliver South Carolina to Obama, everybody will know that they are bloc-voting. That will trigger a massive white backlash against Obama and will drive white voters to Hillary Clinton.
Obama has done everything he possibly could to keep race out of this election. And the Clintons attracted national scorn when they tried to bring it back in by attempting to minimize the role Martin Luther King Jr. played in the civil rights movement. But here they have a way of appearing to seek the black vote, losing it, and getting their white backlash, all without any fingerprints showing. The more President Clinton begs black voters to back his wife, and the more they spurn her, the more the election becomes about race -- and Obama ultimately loses.
Playing the race card while not playing the race card? That seems more than a little cynical and convoluted, even in this race.
Still, if there's a pair of politicians capable of pulling this off--and by that, I mean not just having the skill to execute it, but having the lack of conscience to actually go through with it--it's the Clintons.