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With Kaine on the ticket, Democrats can and should put race back on the presidential table

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The hard and fast rule in presidential politics since the 1960s is that you don’t talk frankly about race on the campaign trail. Presumptive Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine can break that rule. Kaine got his start as a civil rights lawyer and notes that as a point of pride on his political bio sheet. His relentless fights against discrimination in housing, the insurance business and education in one-time arch segregationist Virginia is well-known. He is not the LBJ of presidential politics, but he’s about as close as it gets to a candidate on the ticket with a civil rights pedigree that he doesn’t run from. The rule that has forbade Democratic presidential candidates to talk about racial issues that was put in place by the GOP four decades ago for one reason, and that was to ensure its dominance of the White House and national politics.

GOP presidential candidates set the tone for this during the Nixon years. He stood racial politics on its head courting of Southern white males who were in apoplectic rage over civil rights. Nixon tarred Democrats as the party that supposedly pandered shamelessly to blacks and minorities and ignored whites. The charge hit home. The message was that talking about civil rights was a surefire prescription for defeat. At the same time, Nixon and subsequent GOP presidential candidates stole a page from the playbook of George Wallace and invented a spectacular array of wink-and-nod racially loaded code words and phrases to paint a horrific picture of Democrats supposedly giving the governmental company store away in run-away entitlements and massive spending on job, welfare and social programs to blacks — all, of course, at the expense of hard-working, over-taxed and ignored, blue collar and suburban whites. The GOP doubled down on this by making crime, law and order and tough military prowess the center piece of their presidential campaigns.

Trump follows pretty much the same script. His naked race baiting started when he piled onto the phony, fraudulent issue of Obama’s birth certificate in 2012. He picked up steam with his slur of Muslims, immigrants and Mexicans. He piled on even more with his broken record chant of the old reliable, arch race baiting code slogans, “law and order” and “crime in the streets” and styling himself as the candidate who would clean up the streets. He has made it brutally clear that he banks on conservative, less educated, blue collar white males, and a wide stratum of fearful, angry and supposedly-marginalized suburban whites to propel him into the White House. Polls show that he has a top-heavy bulge among these voters over Clinton. Race is never openly talked about as the reason for this. But it doesn’t have to be: It’s understood and it drives the fears and anxiety among Trump’s backers.

Kaine has two qualities that can counter Trump’s blatant race baiting. One is he’s a white, a male and a Southerner. But he’s also a Democrat and a liberal, centrist, staunch civil rights proponent. This represents everything the Trump crowd loathes.

These are assets. By talking proudly about his civil rights advocacy as an attorney, mayor, governor and senator, this would do much to ensure that African-American and Hispanic voters turn Clinton’s White House bid into the same type of crusade that they did with Obama. This is not a small point. There is deep distrust and some anger among many blacks about Clinton’s supposed tout of hubby Bill’s crime bills, welfare reform and GOP-lite pander to white middle class voters with his big emphasis on whittling down government. This burst into a mini-firestorm at one point during her Democratic presidential primary joust with Bernie Sanders when Black Lives Matter protesters repeatedly confronted Clinton over her calling violent criminals “super predators” presumably meaning blacks. The always volatile and chronic issue of police violence and the killing of unarmed blacks isn’t likely to go away, and each time the eyes of many blacks will look to her to see what she has to say about it. This is their litmus test of a Democrat’s commitment to justice and civil rights.

The residual suspicion is that Clinton in office would shunt civil rights to the backburner of her administration’s legislative agenda. Kaine can take that fear off the table by simply talking about his commitment to civil rights and acting as if he means to keep talking about and acting on it once elected. This could be the game changer needed in the three or four swing states that will decide the election, and where black and Hispanic votes will be needed to offset Trump’s white fear-driven backers.

Kaine and the Democrats have a priceless opportunity to do something that presidential campaigns have routinely ducked and dodged out of fear and cowardice. That is put race back on the presidential table.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.