Tuesday, April 15, 2008

‘Bitter’ pill and antidote

When is a controversy not a controversy? With the Pennsylvania primary hanging in the balance, the media’s talkingest wags and the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John McCain have leaped on what was thought to be a fatal gaffe committed last week by Sen. Barack Obama.

But the lack of negative traction Obama’s comments have gained for Clinton and McCain, and Obama’s forthright defense of those comments, suggest that the expiration date for that kind of rabble-rousing by Obama’s challengers for the presidency may have finally arrived.

Obama, speaking to campaign donors at an April 6 fundraiser in San Francisco, said the nation’s smaller municipalities, heir to dismal economic circumstances, were subject to bitterness manifested in religion, and in some of the tropes of national intolerance.

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” he said. “And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not.

“It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

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Fans of events of the World Wrestling Federation must have reveled in the political tag-team attack that followed.

First Clinton pounced, calling his comments "elitist" and "out of touch" on Saturday, in a reflexive play to the rural vote that Clinton hopes to curry favor with in Pennsylvania on April 22.

“I think his comments were elitist and divisive,” she said on Monday. “You don't have to think back too far to remember that good men running for president were viewed as being elitist and out of touch with the values and the lives of millions of Americans,” she added, referring to Al Gore and John Kerry, the 2000 and 2004 Democratic nominees.

"I think it's very critical that the Democrats really focus in on this and make it clear that we are not (elitist). We are going to stand up and fight for all Americans," Clinton said.

McCain got in the ring on Monday at the Associated Press Annual Meeting in Washington: calling Obama's comments “elitist” and saying they were a “contradiction from what I believe America is all about.”

"These are the people that produced a generation that made the world safe for democracy," he said. "These are the people that have fundamental cultural, spiritual, and other values that in my view have very little to do with their economic condition."

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It was not Obama’s best choice of words; actually, coming from the most oratorically gifted American politician on the scene, it seems curiously offhand and tone-deaf to the sensibilities of the very people he needs to win between now and November. More important, the comments suggested an insensitivity to traditions and values that are, for better or worse, some of the nation’s most deeply embraced.

“Are working people bitter? There’s no doubt that many are extremely bitter over the economic hand they’ve been dealt,” The New York Times Bob Herbert wrote today. “ … But ‘bitter’ has a connotation that is generally not helpful in a political campaign. Bitter suggests powerlessness and a smallness of spirit. Most people would prefer to be characterized as ‘angry’ — a term that suggests empowerment — rather than ‘bitter,’ with its undertone of defeat.”

Hoping to capitalize, Clinton went so far as to including on her campaign music playlist the John Mellencamp song “Small Town” at at least one campaign rally. Once again, the naysayers envisioned Obama circling the drain.

But what happened next — what’s happened since — has been one of the latest surprises in a campaign full of them.

Obama proved he could stand in the fire, even a fire of his own making, and turn a negative into a possible positive. Simply put, he didn’t back down from what he said days before. And by standing his ground, he may have done himself more good than harm.

At a CNN “Compassion Forum” on Sunday last night, Obama expanded on the April 6 comment.

"What I was saying is that when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is they've got family, they've got their faith, they've got the traditions that have been passed onto them from generation to generation. Those aren't bad things. That's what they have left. And, unfortunately, what people have become bitter about -- and oftentimes have told me about, as I traveled through not just Pennsylvania, but I was referring to states all across the Midwest, including my home state -- is any confidence that the government is listening to them. They don't think that government is listening to them."

On Monday, at the annual Associated Press editors’ meeting in Washington, Obama addressed again both his comments and the knee-jerk critiques to those comments.

“I may have made a mistake last week in the words that I chose,” he said. “But the other party has made a much more damaging mistake in the failed policies they’ve chosen and the bankrupt philosophy they’ve embraced for the last three decades.”

“If John McCain wants to turn this election into a contest about which party is out of touch with the struggles and hopes of working America, that’s a debate I’m happy to have. I think it’s a debate that we have to have … I believe that the real insult to the millions of hard-working Americans out there would be a continuation of the economic agenda that’s dominated Washington for far too long.”

“If I had to carry the banner for eight years of George Bush’s failures, I’d be looking for something else to talk about, too.”

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Clinton’s piling-on role didn’t go unnoticed. Arianna Huffington blogged at The Huffington Post: “By cynically twisting Obama's comments about small town voters in a way that confirms every right-wing demagogic caricature of her own Party, Hillary Clinton has adopted the frames, lies, stereotypes and destructive clichés long embraced by the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. She has clearly decided that the road to victory runs through scorched earth. The question is, if she succeeds, what kind of Party will she be left to lead?”

What should be more worrying to the Clinton campaign is that, as reported by The AP’s Mark Scolforo on Monday, some Pennsylvanians found Obama’s comments were no big damn deal.

The AP: “Truck salesman Bob Bildheiser, 49, said he is tentatively supporting Obama and that he agreed with the point that Obama was trying to make about the nation's economic problems.

“ ‘The people are bitter about the economy, about jobs, about the gas prices. It's terrible,’ he said. …

“Dennis Yezulinas, [a] Clinton supporter in Shenandoah, said he is more offended by the rhetorical fight that followed Obama's comment than by the remark itself.

“ ‘Not just for the good of the Democratic Party, but for the good of the country, they need to make it less contentious," said Yezulinas.”

Mary Ellen Matunis, a Clinton backer from Shenandoah, said, “I was not offended. Poor choice of words, but I think it was just misspoken.”

"People are bitter in small towns," said Thomas Frank, author of "What's The Matter With Kansas?," a book on the shifting political dynamic of middle America. "People are bitter everywhere,” Frank told the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein. “I don't know if you have seen the stock market — people are bitter about their situation. It doesn't strike me as a very controversial statement."

In his HuffPost column on Saturday, Robert Creamer used a headline that made pretty plain the hypocrisies behind the latest spate of Obama bashing: “It Takes Real Chutzpah for a Guy Who Owns Eight Houses (McCain) to Call Barack Obama an ‘Elitist.’”

And Hillary Clinton, whose gold-plated tax returns were released recently, is similarly vulnerable to being revisualized in a hurting blue-collar state, despite her best working-class guises. How can anyone who’s half of a matrimonial/political corporation whose assets over seven years topped $109 million make any credible claims to being anything but an elitist?

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The Monday Gallup Daily Tracking Poll — an admittedly fluid thing based on daily snapshots of perception and which side of the bed you got up on — showed that, in the short term at least, the “bitter” pill didn’t really need an antidote. Obama had maintained a 10-point lead over Clinton, a lead first established the week before.

The reasons why this hasn’t exploded in Obama’s face are anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s just campaign fatigue. Or Obama may have accidentally tapped into something that Pennsylvanians can relate to, deeply and personally: a willingness to stand one’s ground. Rather than go into all-apologies mode after April 6, Obama stood up like a man who’s got a pair, elaborating on what he’d said, sticking by it on principle. In doing so, he may have gained grudging respect, if nothing more, among the very people thought to be opposed to him on the basis of race alone.

(And maybe more respect than Hillary Clinton. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s statement in February that “I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate” makes an inference that Clinton should be less than comfortable with: True enough, those Pennsylvanians unwilling to vote for Obama just because he’s black may be predisposed to vote for Clinton just because she’s white. On the basis of our historical and persisting patterns of bias, then, those same Pennsylvanians would be just as likely to vote for McCain over Clinton because McCain’s a white man. )

When is a controversy not a controversy? When something, anything happens in a presidential campaign so hard-wired to controversy itself that it’s getting hard to make meaningful, enduring distinctions between one event and another.

When the ones who’d try to exploit it to their advantage get hoist higher on the same petard.

When the objects of that exploitation tell pollsters, reporters and neighbors at the corner bar: “The people are bitter. ... It’s terrible.”
Image credit: PA logo: State of Pennsylvania.

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