Ralph Nader -- the consumer advocate running as an independent for president and a bane to Democrats -- is pressing the case that presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama is another corporate candidate who won't really change Washington.
All well and good, but his remarks this week that throw race into the critique are getting notice.
Nader told the Rocky Mountain News, in an interview published today, that Obama is trying to "talk white" and to appeal to "white guilt."
"There's only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He's half African-American," Nader said in what the newspaper described as a wide-ranging interview on Monday. "Whether that will make any difference, I don't know. I haven't heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What's keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn't want to appear like Jesse Jackson? We'll see all that play out in the next few months and if he gets elected afterwards."
Asked to clarify whether he thought Obama does try to "talk white," Nader added: "I mean, first of all, the number one thing that a black American politician aspiring to the presidency should be is to candidly describe the plight of the poor, especially in the inner cities and the rural areas, and have a very detailed platform about how the poor is going to be defended by the law, is going to be protected by the law, and is going to be liberated by the law. Haven't heard a thing."
"He wants to show that he is not a threatening . . . another politically threatening African-American politician," Nader said. "He wants to appeal to white guilt. You appeal to white guilt not by coming on as black is beautiful, black is powerful. Basically he's coming on as someone who is not going to threaten the white power structure, whether it's corporate or whether it's simply oligarchic. And they love it. Whites just eat it up."
Obama, whose mother was from Kansas and father was from Kenya, has been navigating the African-American and white communities his entire life, going to a predominantly white college and Harvard Law School, then getting deeply involved in Chicago's black power structure. In March, he gave a widely-praised speech on race and politics in which he faulted both whites and blacks for letting racial animosity and distrust linger.
His campaign has had a rather muted response to Nader's comments thus far. "We are obviously disappointed with these very backward-looking remarks," Obama campaign spokeswoman Shannon Gilson told the newspaper.
Obama's communications director, Robert Gibbs, was more pithy on MSNBC this afternoon, paraphrasing a saying that it's better to be not smart and keep one's mouth shut than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.
Gibbs said that Nader must not have spent a lot of time looking at Obama's career, including his work as a community organizer in Chicago and his advocacy in the US Senate for proposals that help blacks and others.
Asked whether the remarks were racist, Gibbs said they were "reprehensible." "It's downright delusional," he said.
Chris Driscoll, a spokesman for Nader, said this afternoon he would not retract or apologize for his remarks.
"Obama’s abstract campaign has been illusional and irresponsible when it comes to avoiding concrete policies that truly defend and empower the 100 million Americans living in poverty or near poverty," Nader said in a statement read by Driscoll.
UPDATE: Obama said at press conference in Chicago this afternoon that he has been addressing the issues that Nader raised.
"First of all, what's clear is that Ralph Nader has not been paying attention to my speeches," Obama told reporters.
"Ralph Nader's trying to get attention. He's become a perennial political candidate. It's a shame," Obama added, because of his laudable legacy on consumer protection.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.