Clinton’s strategists—both white and black— were well aware of the need for any successful Democratic presidential candidate to win back a significant number of “Reagan Democrats” (upper working-class and new middle-class white ethnics). Helping Clinton to place the Reagan Democrats at the center of the campaign was the goal of Thomas and Mary Edsall’s curious book Chain Reaction. I call the book curious because, though penned by two ostensibly progressive intellectuals, Chain Reaction spooned up a lot of cynical formulations regarding the racial issue that almost amounted to advising Democratic candidates to “Willie Hortonize” their way back into the White House.
Two shrewd liberal southern politicians like Clinton and Gore didn’t really need the Edsalls’ formulations to guide their campaign. They had their own understanding of America’s pathological racist legacy—an understanding leavened by a sensitive grasp of how racism has ravaged African American lives. Clinton and Gore also had a keen sense of the moral limits that liberal and progressives must always apply to their pragmatism, moral limits not apparent from my reading of Chain Reaction....
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