This was the subject of at least three blog posts worth reading. The New York Times post falls furthest from the mark, but I include it for the sake of comparison. I don’t think the question is the right one. Nor is “is Clinton racist?” The question for me is, how has Clinton taken advantage of racist dynamics in the past, and did that trend continue in 08?

Ok. That doesn’t really work as a sound bite, but bear with me.

When Reagan ran off two victories in a piss-poor economy, touting policies that went against his base’s own economic interests, folks were trying to understand why. Democratic strategists held focus groups in Sterling Heights Michigan at Lakeside mall, trying to get “Reagan Democrats” to chime in.

And chime in they did, blaming everything on blacks–their own economic circumstances, the state of the country, their vote for Reagan. In response, strategists burned the report…and they argued that the Democrats should move to the center and should de-emphasize issues that make it appear as if they are coddling “special interests” (i.e. blacks). The Edsall’s book Chain Reaction as well as Paul Frymer’s Uneasy Alliance are important.

In the 1992 race we see Clinton do two things to indicate he wasn’t beholden to blacks. He interrupted his campaign in order to attend Ricky Ray Rector’s state-sponsored murder, in order to diffuse criticisms that he was soft on crime. And he misinterpreted Sistah Souljah’s words at the annual Rainbow Push Convention, in order to decry Jesse Jackson and “black racism” in one fell swoop.

After he was elected he appointed more African Americans to appointed positions than anyone before him. But he also repealed welfare, reproducing racist imagery of African American women in so doing, and derailed Lani Guinier’s appointment as Assistant Attorney General when the GOP labelled her as a “quota queen.” Finally more black men went to prison under his watch than under any other presidency, with Clinton giving at least one speech in a black church blaming black people for the crime wave.

At a number of critical moments in Clinton’s career, he used racist ideas about blacks to increase his support, and to decrease the ability black people should have as citizens to make claims of the government. Now with some of those incidents, blacks helped him. A number of prominent black legislators supported welfare repeal. And black legislators supported the crime legislation he wanted passed. And there were probably some blacks who felt that Jesse Jackson’s role as supposed kingmaker was bad for black people (count me as being among this group).

But yet and still, taking Clinton’s history into account it should be clear that Clinton hasn’t been as “racially innocent” as he would like people to think he is. And in ignoring the history here, people are missing an opportunity to ask a much more interesting set of questions.