'Breakthrough': the next generation of politicians

The Baltimore Sun

The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama

By Gwen Ifill

Doubleday / 288 pages / $25.95

It's too bad Republicans backing their candidate in the recent presidential election chose to demean Gwen Ifill's The Breakthrough in hopes of disqualifying the venerable black journalist as the moderator of the vice presidential debate.

Now that it's published, they should read the book.

Ifill, a former reporter for Baltimore's Evening Sun and now the moderator and managing editor of PBS' Washington Week and a senior correspondent of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, explores the landscape of black politics. Her book is a must-read for anyone interested in better understanding the new wave of America's elected leaders and how they choose to govern.

The title is self explanatory. Obama is the new standard in politics and, as Ifill points out in the book's conclusion, "the bench [of black elected officials] is deep - crammed elbow to elbow with mayors, state lawmakers and other rising stars poised to grab at the next brass ring."

This new breed - including Michael B. Coleman, mayor of Columbus, Ohio; Kamala D. Harris, San Francisco's district attorney; Artur Davis, congressman from Alabama; or Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts - are all Democrats representing a more diverse and demanding electorate. These are not your parents' black politicians. They tend, as Ifill emphasizes throughout the book, to cater to white voters and assume their black supporters will somehow understand.

Ifill does more than a credible job of reporting, taking a series of interviews with a wide range of black politicians to assess their challenges. This nation has yet to reach its "post-racial" stage, where ability and merit trumps race, and today's black politicians are painfully aware of it.

To many of their elders, they are brash upstarts who won't wait their turn. Of course, there's the "black" tightrope. To some black voters, a black politician may not be "black" enough. To their white counterparts, that same politician may be "too black."

Partisans may note that The Breakthrough almost exclusively features Democrats, which is more of an indictment of the Republican Party than the book's author. Ironically, Ifill offers the political party that targeted her during the 2008 campaign a blueprint for future success.

Republicans would be wise to follow the Obama model and develop their own cadre of black, post-civil rights, coalition-building candidates to move their beleaguered party to the next level.

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