The Politics Of Race: A Low Blow To Dean

Howard Dean says he’s tired of being the designated “pin cushion” in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes. That’s understandable — although understated. He’s more like a punching bag.

Such status comes, of course, with the front-runner territory. No one is queuing up to skewer Carol Moseley Braun. Dean, for example, was on last week’s cover of Time magazine, while everybody else got a group photo in the Des Moines Register.

Most of the body blows Dean has received, however, are well within the norms of campaign in-fighting. Anything he might have said in another time and in another context is fair — even if unfair — game. That’s part of the trade-off for being the leader in polls, money, organization and key endorsements. Everything he says is scrutinized for quid pro quotes.

Whether America is safer as a result of Saddam Hussein’s capture is part of the hardball, rhetorical mix. Whether Dean is anathema to party centrists is up for grabs. Whether his Vermont record — liberal on abortion and conservative on gun control, for example — can be squared with enough voters is a valid question.

But what isn’t relevant is what made all the headlines recently in Iowa, when Dean was challenged on race by the irreverent Al Sharpton. The latter rebuked Dean for his all-white cabinets while governor of Vermont.

To note that Vermont had Caucasian cabinets during the Dean years is meaningless, except as a reminder that Sharpton earned his way into the national consciousness as a professional race opportunist. The black population of Vermont is virtually nil.

It would make as much sense to criticize Sharpton for not having had a more diversified entourage for James Brown, when he was “The Godfather of Soul’s” road manager.

But let’s hear it for Moseley-Braun, the other black candidate, for putting the proper spin on Sharpton’s racial cheap shot. “You can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other,” she told Sharpton. “It’s time for us to talk about what you want to do to bring people together.”

Don’t be surprised, however, if Moseley-Braun has more such opportunities as the campaign heads into more racially diverse states, such as South Carolina.

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