Commentary: When will this race get to the important questions?

SAN DIEGO -- Barack Obama stands accused of introducing race into this election. Why, before Obama quipped that the McCain campaign had nothing to offer but fear of "the other" -- and then implied that he was the other because he "doesn't look li...

SAN DIEGO -- Barack Obama stands accused of introducing race into this election.

Why, before Obama quipped that the McCain campaign had nothing to offer but fear of "the other" -- and then implied that he was the other because he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills" -- I bet no one had given race a thought.

Certainly not Billy Shaheen, the former co-chairman of Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign, who suggested that Republicans would ask whether Obama had ever sold drugs.

Not Bill Clinton, who condescendingly likened Obama to Jesse Jackson and then described the reaction to that comment as a "mugging." Clinton is still reeling from the episode. During a recent interview with ABC News, Clinton insisted: "I am not a racist. I've never made a racist comment, and I didn't attack (Obama) personally."

Not Hillary Clinton, who -- in a tacky remark condemned by one of her supporters, Rep. Charlie Rangel -- questioned the strength of Obama's support among "hard-working ... white Americans."


Not the media, where pundits spent months examining the inane question of whether Obama was "black enough" only to turn around during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fiasco and essentially ask if he wasn't too black. Analysts also insisted that Hispanics wouldn't elect an African-American president. Now, with Hillary out of the race, Obama leads McCain 2-1 among Hispanics.

Not The New Yorker, which depicted Obama and his wife as flag-burning, fist-bumping, Osama bin Laden-worshiping black militants. While some of that is race neutral in that the same could be said for a white militant, the fact that Obama is black only fuels the caricature because African-Americans have long had to suffer fools who question their patriotism.

Not the voters, some of whom -- according to polls -- still have mixed feelings about making history and electing America's first black president. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll in June, 30 percent of white voters (and 34 percent of blacks) admitted to harboring some racial prejudice. In the poll, just over half of white voters called Obama a "risky" choice for president, but two-thirds considered McCain a "safe" one. Twenty percent of white voters thought that Obama would overrepresent the interests of African-Americans.

Really? Tell that to the African-American hecklers who pestered Obama during a recent speech in St. Petersburg, Fla., holding up a banner that read: "What about the black community, Obama?" Some on the fringe complain that Obama hasn't addressed the concerns of a community that all but worships him so that he can appeal to the mainstream.

The point is that long before Obama noted that he doesn't resemble dead white males on dollar bills, race was already one of the currencies of this campaign. And, from the moment that Obama entered the contest and began playing to win, it was always going to be. Some are jumping on Obama for even alluding to race, when others have flirted with the topic for months.

Race doesn't have to become the dominant narrative of this election. But it is naive to think that it wasn't going to be woven in there somewhere. If anything, it seems that Obama has tried to avoid the subject out of fear that it'll weaken his support among white voters.

And so it looks childish for McCain campaign manager Rick Davis to rant and rave that Obama -- in implying that Republicans would use race to scare up support for McCain -- "played the race card, and ... played it from the bottom of the deck." Davis said this was "divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."

Give me a break. Davis went over the top. Obama was just pre-emptively dealing with a touchy subject before his opponents could use it against him. In response, Davis did the same thing. What was it that McCain said in defense of that desperate celebrity ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton? "Campaigns are tough."


Yes, they are. But is it too much to ask that they also be useful? Are we done playing games? Can we start the real campaign now -- the one where Obama and McCain explain how they would improve the economy, lower gas prices, save Social Security, pull out of Iraq, expand trade, provide illegal immigrants with earned legalization while securing the border, make the public schools accountable, etc?

You know, the campaign where we spend less time wringing our hands over where America has been and more time charting where we need to go.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is .

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