I listen to political podcasts on my iPod when I’m on the treadmill. One of the ones I like is the Slate Political Gabfest, even though all three regular panelists are strong Obama supporters. (So is almost everyone at Slate — when they polled their staffers, the vote went 55-1 for Obama over McCain, with a couple of minor candidates.) I’m not on the same page politically with the Gabfesters, but they have intelligent lively conversations, and generally treat the opposition with respect.

Today, however, I almost fell off the treadmill at something the usually sensible John Dickerson said:

“A lot of voters… when you talk about experience with respect to Obama, that’s code for people’s continuing uncomfortableness about his race… a lot of times when people talk about worries about his experience, they’re really touching against their difficulty with the fact that he’s an African-American.” [about 9 minutes into the podcast]

Oh. My. God.

I thought we had reached the depths of strained attempts to play the race card a couple of weeks ago, when a Kansas City Star columnist opined that the term “socialist” is “an old code word for black.” As evidence for this, columnist Lewis Diuguid said J. Edgar Hoover had used the term to describe prominent black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. This ignores the fact that Hoover also referred to white socialists as “socialists,” that King (whom I admire) at least arguably was a socialist, and that Robeson and DuBois were admirers of Josef Stalin and, if anything, to the left of socialism.

But however misguided Diuguid’s argument might be, at least he advanced some reason for asserting that “socialism” is racial code. Dickerson offers no rationale whatsoever for the idea that “inexperience,” a major campaign theme raised by both Hillary Clinton and McCain for many months, all of a sudden has become racial code.

Here’s how to decipher the terms: “Socialism” is code for government redistribution of wealth, as in Obama’s stated desire to “spread the wealth around.” “Inexperience” is code for “not having much experience.” If political opponents criticize Obama for inexperience and leaning toward socialism, it’s because he’s a first-term Senator who has the most liberal voting record in the Senate, to the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist.

The clash of ideas is the bedrock of our political system, and it ain’t always pretty. There have been 43 white Presidents, and every single one of them has had both strong supporters and harsh critics. If Obama becomes the first black President, it has to be possible to criticize him without having to defend against specious charges of racism.

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