How Much More Will Rev. Jeremiah Wright Destroy Barack Obama's Presidential Bid


Voters have been running from Barack Obama since the Jeremiah Wright scandal erupted. A Zogby poll conducted this week in Indiana ahead of its key primary next Tuesday found that 21% of likely Democratic primary voters said they were less likely to vote for Obama as a result of his former pastor's statements. But why, exactly, are these and other voters fleeing? The answer could make the difference in Obama's chances to win the nomination and to pull out election victory in November. And it could tell us something about the state of racial politics in America.

There is a very small subset of voters who are sympathetic to Wright's expressions of respect for Louis Farakhan, his condemnation of America's 60-year bipartisan approach to Israel and his suspicions about U.S. involvement in the creation of the AIDS virus. The vast majority thinks his views on those issues are at least wrong, if not outright offensive. But what conclusion do those voters draw about Obama as a result? Do they imagine that Obama believes the same things? Or do they think Obama disagrees with them, but question his credibility because of his belated disavowal of the preacher who holds them?

Obama can marshal a lot of evidence to show he doesn't believe what Wright believes: his personal history, his professional life, his voting record all show he has fairly mainstream if somewhat liberal views on U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

But Wright's inflammatory statements in the past week forced Obama to make a renunciation that undermined the credibility of his well-received Philadelphia speech on race, in which he explained why he listened to Wright's speeches to begin with. "The difficulty people would have is precisely that: if he has been going to that church for a long time how could he not know?" says Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center. The question now for Obama is which is worse — people thinking you agree with Wright, or people not believing your high-minded explanations for associating with him.

A Rasmussen poll out Friday tries to peel back some of these issues, and the answers are not particularly heartening for Obama. In a survey of 800 likely voters, Rasmussen finds that 58% think Obama has denounced Wright because it's politically convenient, while 30% say he did so because he was outraged (13% say they're not sure). Only 33% say they think Obama was surprised by Wright's views, while 52% say they think he was not.

Just as troubling for Obama, a majority of people associate his views with those of Wright: despite his denials, 56% said that it was somewhat or very likely that Obama shares some of Wright's views, while 35% said it was not very or not at all likely (8% were unsure). The survey shows a racial divide in the response: 55% of whites think Obama shares some of Wright's views, versus 47% of blacks and 74% of those identifying themselves as "other."

Associating Obama with Wright's radical views raises the specter of racial stereotyping. Those who impute to Obama radical views about AIDS, Israel or black nationalism are knowingly discounting his stated positions and making assumptions that may be influenced by his race. Just how much of that is going on is hard to measure. But if there's a racial component to voters' abandonment of Obama in the wake of the Wright affair, it's safe to say those voters aren't coming back.

Wounds caused by damaged credibility, of course, are also hard to heal. "The problem with credibility," says Pew's Keeter, "Is that people think of it as a fundamental character trait. Some measure of lack of honesty is damaging because it leads to a broader generalization."

Obama's approach to the problem appears to be to empahsize his mainstream views and shore up his credibility through other associations. Endorsements from people like former Hillary Clinton supporter and onetime Democratic chairman Joe Andrew "can help you stop the damage from this kind of affair," says Keeter. Maybe. But at least repairing damaged credibility is possible; healing the country's racial divide is a lot more difficult.

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Morgan Tsvangirai or Robert Mugabe, Run-off Election Will Tell Who

More than a month after Zimbabwe went to the polls, electoral authorities on Friday finally announced a result in the presidential race: a do-over. The Zimbabwe Election Commission said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won 47.9% of the vote to President Robert Mugabe's 43.2%. That means that, officially, no candidate has won an outright victory of more than 50%, a scenario which, under Zimbabwean electoral law, mandates a second round run-off within three weeks. "Since no candidate has received the majority of the valid vote cast... a second election shall be held on a date to be advised by the commission," chief elections officer Lovemore Sekeramayi told reporters in Harare.

The admission that Mugabe did not win the March 29 poll is not, as some have suggested, a landmark concession on the part of the regime that has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years. Rather, it signals Mugabe's intention to hold onto power. Reacting to the result, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which says its own calculations show its leader won more than 50%, angrily rejected the result. MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti claimed at a press conference in South Africa that the vote count had been rigged. "Morgan Tsvangirai is the president of the republic of Zimbabwe to the extent that he won the highest number of votes," he added. "Morgan Tsvangirai has to be declared the president of Zimbabwe."

The election commission is appointed by Mugabe's Zanu-PF regime and its independence has therefore been suspect. The rationale behind the regime's month-long wait before releasing the result and, then, its announcement of another round seems simple: delay and re-group. Mugabe's regime indicated a few days after the poll that it knew Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe. (The state-controlled Herald newspaper reported Mugabe had failed to win re-election and predicted a second round run-off.) Meanwhile, the Election Commission announced that the MDC had won a majority in parliament and a few days ago confirmed that result after a recount.

The regime could hardly have been surprised that it lost the vote — Zimbabwe is a country with 80% unemployoment, 100,000% inflation and life expectancy in the mid 30s. But with a month to come to terms with that idea, it had time to gather its forces for a counterattack.

How does it plan to do that? Since the election, militias claiming loyalty to the regime have fanned out across the country, intimidating, beating and even killing opposition supporters. The MDC says around 20 of its members have died, a number impossible to verify because foreign journalists continue to be banned from entering Zimbabwe. But neither side disputes that hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested, nor that the seizure of farms belonging to opposition supporters has resumed, nor that several foreign journalists have been arrested and deported. This nationwide campaign of repression seems aimed at coercing support for Mugabe, and providing him with a sufficient electoral boost to win a run-off.

Such disdain for the democratic process begs a question: why bother with elections at all? Other African tyrannies have dispensed with the awkward trial of popular votes altogether, and ruled as unapologetic autocracies. So why the need for a veneer of respectability, however thin, in Zimbabwe? The answer lies in the psychology of Mugabe and his fellow liberation leaders, many of whom came from a background of elite academia. Mugabe himself has seven degrees, most of them earned during the 11 years he spent in prison when the country was called Rhodesia.

Though their regimes may be thuggish, these men are not thugs themselves. They are intellectuals and, as firm believers that their various opponents are merely puppets of the same imperial enemy they have always faced, it is intellectually crucial that they beat their former colonial masters at their own game. Western democracy, as they see it, is hollow. Western governments that were democratically elected at home pursued autocratic colonialism abroad. Even after the end of the age of imperialism, neo-imperialists funneled support to compliant dictators around the world, and relentlessly attempted to fix the rules of the global economy in their favor. According to this view, employing a little election tinkering here and a little intimidation there is merely playing by rules set by the West.

Whatever the merits of that argument, it is unlikely that Mugabe's regime will make the same mistake twice. One longtime resident of the capital of Harare warned in an e-mail a few days ago that Zimbabwe's opposition is in danger of losing its best chance at making a change. "What I find most frightening is that already the opposition and elements of the international community are subsiding back into apathy," he wrote. "I am hearing people saying, 'Well, you know, he'll get away with it this time, but he won't last forever, and there'll be another chance in five years.' There won't be. If he doesn't go, there will not be another chance. There will not be another election in five years time unless Zanu-PF is the only party contesting. There will be no MDC — everyone who opposes Zanu-PF will be in jail or in exile. There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity. This month. Perhaps next. After that, the country will be stolen from us for good."

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Vito J. Fossella, NY Congressman Charged With DWI

A Republican congressman representing New York City was arrested early Thursday outside Washington and charged with driving while intoxicated, police said.

Vito J. Fossella, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, was arrested some time between midnight and 2 a.m., said Lt. Ray Hazel, spokesman for the Alexandria Police Department.

He was charged with driving while intoxicated as a first offense, Hazel said, which under Virginia law requires a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher.

In a statement Thursday, Fossella apologized for his conduct.

"Last night I made an error in judgment," Fossella said. "As a parent, I know that taking even one drink of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car is wrong. I apologize to my family and the constituents of the 13th Congressional District for embarrassing them, as well as myself."

Hazel said he could provide no further details on the arrest, including Fossella's exact blood-alcohol level or where in the city he was arrested.

Fossella, 43, is the lone Republican member of the New York City congressional delegation.

He faced a surprisingly strong re-election challenge in 2006 and is bracing for a similar fight this year. His candidacy has drawn the support from national Republican leadership in recent weeks, including Vice President Dick Cheney.

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