In the Democratic primaries, even the slightest hint of ethnic insensitivity can be devastating to your chances (ask Joe Biden). So what are Barack Obama and his campaign doing?
Today's New York Times reports that the Obama campaign attacked Hillary Clinton's investment in an Indian company and fundraising among Indian Americans by deriding her as "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)":
Mr. Clinton also has $15,001 to $50,000 in Easy Bill Ltd., an India-based company that works on electronic transactions and business services for Indians.
Shortly after the Clinton campaign released the financial information, the campaign of Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, circulated to news organizations -- on what it demanded be a not-for-attribution-basis -- a scathing analysis. It called Mrs. Clinton “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)” in its headline. The document referred to the investment in India and Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising efforts among Indian-Americans. The analysis also highlighted the acceptance by Mr. Clinton of $300,000 in speech fees from Cisco, a company the Obama campaign said has moved American jobs to India.
A copy of the document was obtained by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which provided it to The New York Times. The Clinton campaign has long been frustrated by the effort by Mr. Obama to present his campaign as above the kind of attack politics that Mr. Obama and his aides say has led to widespread disillusionment with politics by many Americans.
Asked about the document, Bill Burton, a spokesman for Mr. Obama, said: “We did give reporters a series of comments she made on the record and other things that are publicly available to anyone who has access to the Internet. I don’t see why anyone would take umbrage with that.”
Asked why the Obama campaign had initially insisted that it not be connected to the document, Mr. Burton replied, “I’m going to leave my comment at that.”
There would be an uproar -- and rightfully so -- if someone referred to Clinton as "D-Tel Aviv" or "D-Mexico City." So why is it ok to engage in this kind of nativist smear about India?
The silliest thing about this is the obvious hypocrisy. Obama has set himself up as being against divisive politics, so why would nativist attacks be a good idea?
[On a related but less serious note, Bill Richardson was quoted saying the following about negotiating with North Korea: "Their U.N. guy calls. His name is Ambassador Kim. K-I-M. They're all named Kim." A tip for future presidential candidates: It's never a good idea to say "They're all named ____" about any ethnic group.]
Update 6/15 10:16 AM: Matthew Yglesias ignores the Obama smear and instead quibbles with my criticism of Richardson, saying it is "political correctness out of control" and noting that "it's actually the case that an incredibly large proportion of Koreans are named 'Kim.'" Of course. There are several ethnic groups/nationalities with very common last names (ie Nguyen for people from Vietnam), but my point stands. I don't think Richardson's comment is that big a deal -- hence my saying "[o]n a related but less serious note" above -- but the very definition of stereotyping is generalizing from some to all. For instance, imagine if the statistical tendency in question was instead something more fraught with meaning such as blacks' lower average socioeconomic status, and you'll see what I mean.
The Punjab reference came from a joke Clinton made herself at a fundraiser hosted by an Indian doctor when she said "I can certainly run for the Senate seat in Punjab and win easily, after being introduced by Singh as the Senator not only from New York but also Punjab."
HILLARY CLINTON (D-PUNJAB)’S PERSONAL FINANCIAL AND POLITICAL TIES TO INDIA
The Clintons have reaped significant financial rewards from their relationship with the Indian community, both in their personal finances and Hillary’s campaign fundraising. Hillary Clinton, who is the co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, has drawn criticism from anti-offshoring groups for her vocal support of Indian business and unwillingness to protect American jobs. Bill Clinton has invested tens of thousands of dollars in an Indian bill payment company, while Hillary Clinton has taken tens of thousands from companies that outsource jobs to India. Workers who have been laid off in upstate New York might not think that her recent joke that she could be elected to the Senate seat in Punjab is that funny.
It even goes on to (implicitly) criticize her for co-founding the Senate India Caucus. What is wrong with that?