Real question. The contest between Harold Ford, Jr. and Bob Corker for the seat soon to be vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, is freighted with issues-Iraq, the future of this over-heated planet, use of torture, repeal of habeas corpus, presidential accountability, reliability of voting machines, energy dependence, nuclear proliferation, gay rights, many more. Yet this tight race could come down to whether white voters can bring themselves to overcome years of habit and push the button next to the name of someone of a different race.
Let me put it this way:
* Harold Ford, Jr., D
* Bob Corker, R
Try it now, while no one is looking. Take a practice run. I'm serious. Pretend you know nothing about the Tennessee Waltz or Ford's social life. Pretend you know nothing about Corker's ties to the energy industry or his controversial role in putting a Walmart driveway through a piece of deed-protected land.
Pretend you know only that Corker's a Republican and Ford's a Democrat, and check one.
* Bob Corker, R
* Harold Ford, Jr., D
There it is. The race question crystallized. But then, it could hardly be avoided. Everyone from Newsweek to Hardball has pointed out that, should Ford be elected, he would become the first Southern man of color to serve in the United States Senate since Reconstruction.
It's an issue that cuts many ways. Progressives might seize the opportunity to make history, but racists have been known to seize such moments as well. And people of general good will, who might want to appear to be above race in public, sometimes express less liberal tendencies in the privacy of the voting booth.
The current Newsweek cites several examples from history of elections in which public polls predicted victory for a black candidate, only to have such expectations dashed-presumably by reversals in the voting booth.
It's a dismal issue. When the Republican National Committee released an ad showing a bare-shouldered blonde woman saying, with a wink to the camera, "Harold, call me"-many charged that the ad was calculated to evoke primal insecurities and stereotypes about black men's dishonorable intentions toward white women. Corker disowned the ad, though perhaps not quickly enough, and Ford fired back, laying responsibility for the ad at Corker's feet.
Internet blogs and talking heads seized on the controversy.
Recently a friend laid a simple question on the table in a restaurant. Have you ever voted for a black man? I had to think a long time to answer that simple question. It's seldom been an issue. I've had little, if any, practice. Yet, the question could become even more pertinent in 2008, when voters nationwide might be asked to make the following choice:
* Barack Obama, D
* John McCain, R
During the Republican primary in South Carolina in 2000, a whisper campaign was initiated-some say by Karl Rove-alleging that McCain had fathered a black child. Some believe that racist smear sent his opponent, George W. Bush, all the way to the Republican nomination and his disastrous presidency.
As I pointed out here last week, the coming election should be a referendum on the policies of Bush. To me, a vote for Corker, or most any other Republican on the federal level, would be a vote for more uncritical support of disastrous and insulting policies, while a vote for Ford would be for someone who, at a minimum, recognizes that the war in Iraq was a bad deal and that global warming is real. What could be more important to our future? In a divided Senate, one vote could make all the difference in whether we tackle the monumental problems facing our world, or continue our tragic slide into darkness of ignorance and misguided fear. Your vote can make a difference. Go ahead, practice if you need to.