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Obama's 'Gaffe' and His Critics

By Ed Kilgore

Unless you spent the weekend blissfully unexposed to every news medium, or limited yourself to Master's Tournament coverage, you're probably aware that Barack Obama has endured a non-stop pounding from Hillary Clinton and her surrogates, and from the entire Right-Wing Noise Machine, over comments made at a California fundraiser about his struggles with downscale rural and small-town voters in places like Pennsylvania.

The furor is over a passage in which Obama suggests that people living in chronic economic sinkholes have become "bitter" over their condition and the false promises of politicians to do something about it, and are "clinging" to religion and gun ownership, and hostile attitudes towards immigrants, trade and people of color, out of frustration.

The first question to ask is whether Obama's remarks would have raised eyebrows significantly if they hadn't been leapt upon by Obama's enemies as a symbol of elitism and condescension, and indeed, on the Right, as proof that Obama is something of a crypto-Marxist (google "Obama opiate of the masses" for examples of that line of attack, or just read Bill Kristol's New York Times column from yesterday).

I sort of doubt it. It's hardly a revolutionary observation to note that people for whom decades-long economic trends (particularly those associated with globalization) have not been kind tend to "cling" to what they perceive as a rosier past, and to the cultural verities that endure, while expressing fear and hostility towards agents of change. On the face of it, that doesn't mean rejecting the validity of those cultural verities, or mocking the generally sour and change-averse outlook of Americans who think their way of life is under general assault (you might want to look back at TDS Co-Editor Bill Galston's cogent discussion in 2001 of the feeling among white men that they are history's losers). And indeed, in his efforts to put out the fire, Obama has repeatedly argued that he was expressing sympathy towards these voters, and a determination to help them, rather than condescendingly dismissing their concerns, economic or cultural.

It's interesting to compare the reaction to the scratchy audio of Obama's original comments to those made in the summer of 2004 by Howard Dean: "I am tired of coming to the South and fighting elections on guns, God and gays. We're going to fight this election on our turf, which is going to be jobs, education and health care."

Yes, Dean got challenged on Fox News for this comment, but although it arguably expressed contempt for the legitimacy of cultural issues a lot more clearly than anything said this year by Obama, it didn't produce that much reaction. And for that matter, Dean was accurately reflecting a "false consciousness" attitude towards religion-based political issues in particular that has long been a staple of neo-populist polemics (expressed most famously and brilliantly by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas?) for decades.

But Barack Obama has never associated himself with this brand of neo-populism. And his personal religiosity (in contrast to Dean), his high comfort-level with discussions of faith and other cultural matters (in contrast to the last two Democratic presidential nominees), and his campaign's emphasis on the non-economic dimensions of the case for change (in contrast to Hillary Clinton), all make him an unlikely candidate for the role of sneering materialist in which his opponents are now trying to cast him.

What's really going on here is that Obama's "gaffe" has provided an imperfect but adequate match for the most urgent needs of his Democratic and Republican critics.

The primary worry in Democratic circles about Obama is his persistent electoral weakness among white working-class voters. But as it learned just prior to the South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign has to be careful about this "electability" story-line lest it appear to validate or promote racist sentiments. So what better way to raise the subject than to seize on the idea that Barack Obama is the offender, even the aggressor, in his uneasy relationship with these voters! His "contempt" for them retroactively justifies their reluctance to vote for him.

Among Republicans, the "gaffe" has become an important data point in their efforts to undermine everything novel, interesting and appealing about Obama's candidacy as a post-Baby Boom, post-partisan reform movement that makes a hash of the traditional left-right ideological spectrum. It's all a hoax, they say, a mask: Obama represents nothing new; he's actually the avatar of an old, familiar "threat:" the leftist elites who hate America, and particularly hate the sturdy folk virtues and simple piety of middle America. In much of the emerging conservative invective about Obama's remarks, the venue gets as much attention as the content. Among the right-wing cognoscenti, Marin County, California is the Vatican City of elitist, New Agey liberalism (see Martin Mull's 1980 movie, Serial, as the ultimate send-up of Marin County as hell on earth; cf. Sean Tyla's roughly contemporaneous song, Breakfast in Marin).

The close interdependence of the intraparty and partisan effort to exploit this incident is beyond dispute. Clinton campaign surrogates are battening on the Right's hysteria about Obama-the-Marxist as evidence that, sadly, unfortunately, the poor man is out of touch and unelectable. And every Democratic attack on Obama's "elitism" provides another piece of evidence for the Right's argument that Obama's "mask" is slipping.

I have no idea whether this brouhaha will matter at all in terms of a Democratic nominating contest that Obama's coming close to wrapping up. Without question, it will provide some renewed impetus to Clinton's determination to stay in the race until she's all but mathematically eliminated, and lots of breaths will be bated in anticipation of poll results weighing the impact of all the media hype on Obama's "controversial" remarks. The one thing we know for sure is that the Right's reaction is providing a full-on sneak preview of its strategy to defeat Obama if he is the Democratic nominee. And it ain't pretty.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, where this was originally posted.

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