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Biden’s Civil Rights Record Might Be a Liability for Obama

New America Media, News Analysis, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Aug 26, 2008

Editor's Note: Because of his foreign policy expertise, Delaware Senator Joe Biden may be an asset as a running mate in Barack Obama's presidential campaign, but he may also be a liability, especially with voters in the South, because of his civil rights record. NAM contributing editor, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, is an author and political analyst. His new book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House."

The Georgia GOP committee wasted no time when it got word that Obama picked Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. It bluntly said that by picking him, Obama had effectively killed any chance he had of winning the South.

This is not inflated political hyperbole. For the past four decades, liberalism and civil rights have been tightly interlocked in the South. This election is no different. Obama and Biden know there's mortal political danger in putting too strong an emphasis on civil rights and race. They gingerly step around the issue, however, that won't make it disappear.

The issue for the committee is Biden’s liberal record. He was ranked as the third most liberal senator in 2007 by the National Journal. The most liberal senators were Obama and Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehorse. The single biggest thing that earned Biden his high liberal rating is his civil rights record.

On the issues of busing, affirmative action, expanded hate crimes legislation, government set-asides for minority business, a Rosa Parks commemorative stamp, and fair housing legislation, Biden has been a dream for civil rights leaders. The NAACP gave him a perfect 100 rating in his stance backing affirmative action.

On his senate campaign Web site last year, Biden boldly touted what he called “The Biden Plan: Ending 21st Century Discrimination.” This is a sweeping plan to end discrimination in education, the workplace and the criminal justice system. Biden’s civil rights record is so solid that even his unthinking, loose-lipped crack earlier this year that Obama was “clean” didn’t hurt his civil rights standing. Jesse Jackson quickly stepped in and praised Biden as a strong supporter of civil rights.

If elected, Biden and Obama would be the best presidential tandem on civil rights since Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey in 1964. That’s a scary possibility for Southern conservatives. So scary, that it made the Georgia GOP declare that this civil rights passion virtually amounts to a political kiss of death for them in the South.

The GOP’s formula attack on liberalism, with the tacit understanding that among Southern conservatives liberalism is a code word for civil rights, has worked so well that the South has been the pathway to the White House for GOP presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and George W. Bush. For decades, Southern Republicans have screamed that the civil rights acts and Voting Rights Act were an unlawful federal intrusion and violated states' rights.

Contrary to myth, racist Democrats weren't the biggest obstacle to the Voting Right Act’s initial passage--House Republicans were. Gerald Ford, who was then Republican minority leader, proposed four provisions that would have weakened the bill. One preposterous Republican gambit would have eliminated a provision requiring the federal courts to approve all voting rights laws passed by Southern states.

With President Lyndon Johnson pounding away and the stench of tear gas still in the nation's nostrils from the 1965 attack by Alabama state police on civil rights marchers at Selma, Republican House leaders relented and scrapped the watered-down provisions. But that didn't end the fight to protect voting rights. When it was time to renew the act in 2007, some GOP house members and senators questioned the need for the Act.

Republican presidents have carefully crafted and fine-tuned the Republicans' Southern strategy. The goal was to win elections by doing and saying as little as possible about civil rights, while openly and subtly pandering to Southern white fears of black political domination.

The key is to maintain near-solid backing from white Southern males.

0bbi They have been the staunchest Republican loyalists. Bush grabbed more than 60 percent of the white male vote nationally in 2004. In the South, he got more than 70 percent of their vote. Without the South's unyielding backing in 2000, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore would have easily won the White House, and the Florida vote debacle would have been a meaningless sideshow. In 2004, Bush swept Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in every one of the states of the Old Confederacy and three out of four of the Border States. That ensured another Bush White House.

GOP strategists are well aware that the loss of one or more Southern states to the Democrats in presidential elections could spell political disaster for the GOP. That fear became reality when Clinton snatched four Southern states from the GOP grip in 1992 and 1996. But Clinton did it by emphasizing his Southern Baptist roots and downplaying civil rights.

Biden’s staunch civil rights record makes it even easier for GOP conservatives in the South to make the case that an Obama-Biden White House will be much too liberal and will tilt toward special interests (read blacks and minorities). The GOP won’t do a frontal attack on them on race and civil rights. That would be loudly denounced as race-baiting. Democrats are on the alert for any sign of that. The GOP will simply toss the L word with all of its racial code implications at Biden, and hope that it sticks.

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