At a fundraiser on April 6th in San Francisco, Barack Obama reportedly told a crowd of supporters “that economic problems led voters in small towns to become ‘bitter’ and to ‘cling to guns or religion’” (1). In an attempt to explain his difficulty in successfully wooing white middle and lower class voters the junior Senator from Illinois inadvertently created a firestorm of protest. The story broke later in the week and by the weekend had replaced the Reverend Wright flap on the cable news spin-cycles. “’I am the first to admit that some of the words I chose, I chose badly” Obama told steel workers in Pennsylvania. “They were subject to misinterpretation. They were subject to be twisted. And I regret that. I regret that deeply.”’ (1). He had been closing the 20 point gap that had separated him from Hillary and now he had stumbled badly. This faux pas was not helped when he was shown bowling a 37 at a photo-op in some small Pennsylvania hamlet. Charges were immediately made by both the Clinton and the McCain campaigns that the Senator’s words betrayed a thinly veiled ‘elitism’, and that he was wholly out of touch with working men and women. The flap made for some sharp remarks between the warring camps with charges of “shame on you” being bandied back and forth. Obama retaliated by mocking Hillary’s account of a duck-hunting expedition she undertook in the swamps of Arkansas many years ago, saying that “she’s talking like she’s Annie Oakley”. (1). Of course Barack did not mean that people cling to religion or their guns solely because of economic circumstance. What he meant was they find comfort in their religion, as we all do, in hard times. But a growing campaign fatigue has exacerbated his inexperience on the national stage in an era that has become increasingly unforgiving. How much long term damage this will do is hard to predict.
The hiatus between the Texas and Ohio primaries and the upcoming contest in Pennsylvania has proved to have given the campaigns time to ratchet up political attacks seeking whatever marginal advantages one can in this sand-box struggle to the death. Instead of Clinton and Obama taking time to spell out in further detail how each would address our monumental problems, this six-week spell between elections—an eternity in politics—has been used instead to simply demean the whole process. This is almost entirely the Clinton’s fault, Bill and Hillary—Billary if you will—had long since decided on reducing this contest to the lowest intellectual, cultural, and political common denominator. Here, for the first time, one witnesses the toll it has taken on Obama.
The ‘elitist’ charge is on its face bogus. Here are the Clinton’s, graduates of Georgetown, Wellesley and Yale, Corporate attorneys, members of long standing in the political elite. Here is the good Marshall, son and grandson of navy admirals, graduate of the naval academy, husband of a woman whose estimated wealth is over 100 million dollars, and long a fixture in high Republican circles accusing the new kid on the block of elitism. Of course he is one of the elite. They are all of the elite. So were the Roosevelt’s, and the Kennedy’s. So were the Taft’s and the Bushes. It isn’t a question of whether one belongs to the elites, it is a question of whether the particular elite understand what the hell is happening to main street America. But instead of speaking to the country in ways that reflect a genuine understanding of our collective anguish, Hillary was shown in a seedy Indiana bar belting down shots and chasing them with beer, while Barack could only muster a miserable 37 in a blue-collar bowling alley. Hillary came off looking like the Gipper in an Irish Bar is South Boston, while Barack looked like Dukakis driving a tank.
The fallout of this knife fight in the sandbox, this tempest in a teapot has served only to raise the negatives of both candidates. Those who view Obama as “not at all honest…jumped from 18 percent last fall to 27 percent in April.” These numbers came in the wake of the Reverend Wright fiasco. Furthermore, “in January, 30 percent of Republicans rated Obama unfavorably. That grew to 43 percent in April”. Among independents his unfavorable rating jumped from 12 percent in January to 23 percent in April.(2). But Hillary has conducted this “scorched earth” campaign against her adversary at high personal cost. Beginning the campaign with the highest personal negatives of any national figure in memory she has managed, by reducing political discourse to these levels, to diminish her own stature in the eyes of the electorate. When asked last November “who has the best chance of becoming president?” Hillary led Barack by a 63-14% margin. By April Obama had overtaken her by a margin of 56-43. In addition, while trailing in Pennsylvania, he holds an 8-10 point lead nationally over Hillary in the daily tracking polls. In the meantime there is growing concern among Democrats everywhere that this nonsense cannot continue.