Context Matters

April 13, 2008, 10:31 pm

Because of this story at Politico (and others at places to which, as matter of personal preference, not to be confused with editorial policy, I will not link) Barack Obama is getting hammered today. If you clicked the previous link, you’ve learned the cruel truth: Senator Obama has attacked gun owners and people of faith. Worse still, he held a fundraiser in San Francisco. Grab your kids, people, teh gayz are coming.

Hillary Clinton seized on these comments, eager to distance herself from what must have seemed to her like the news cycle from hell. First, the story of Mark Penn’s double dipping: drawing a salary from Clinton (who, while in Pennsylvania and Ohio at least, has found blue-collar religion: hostility to free trade) while also on the payroll of trade-deal-seeking Colombia. And second, Bill Clinton’s latest episode of unforced fabulism, in which he doubled back to his wife’s exaggerated exploits in Tuzla while she served as first lady. Obama’s remarks, then, allowed Senator Clinton to paint him as, gasp, “elitist.” And, as ABC news reports, with John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” blaring in the background, Clinton talked to an audience in a Pennsylvania factory about her “Midwestern values,” “unshakeable faith in America” (Reverend Wright, anyone?), and respect for gun rights and religion. From all of the above we learn, yet again, that Hillary Clinton has really terrible taste in music.

The McCain camp also welcomed Obama’s remarks. Senator McCain had, of late, made a series of calamitous gaffes about the mortgage crisis, while demonstrating, for the umpteenth time, that he’s either addled or ignorant by repeatedly confusing Sunnis and Shi’as. Accordingly, as with Senator Clinton so too with Senator McCain: Obama’s remarks offered a chance to change the subject. And so, McCain’s spokesman, Steve Schmidt, labeled Senator Obama “elitist.” It’s eerie the way the McCain and Clinton camps seem to be sharing talking points lately. In the same statement, Schmidt suggested, and you may want to put on a raincoat lest you become soaked by the cascading irony, that: “It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans.” If I start counting the ways that John McCain is out of touch with average Americans, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop before November. But hey, while we’re here, let’s begin with McCain’s age: he’s 71 and will turn 72 before the election. The average American, it seems, is only 54 years old. McCain is extremely wizened elderly hoary venerable.

Reading about all of this yesterday, my first reaction was: this is business as usual. Campaigns rip quotes, absent context, from opponents’ stump speeches all the time. Whatever. It’s up to the voters to take the time to do their homework. But then I placed the Clinton camp’s comments in the context of an ongoing effort to argue that Barack Obama can’t win the general election. Remember, this gambit has been unspooling for weeks now; for a long time, it was an argument in search of evidence. Then Reverend Wright’s comments ostensibly proved the point. But Obama transfigured that crisis into a bump at the polls. So now the Clinton camp claims Obama won’t be able to win Pennsylvania in November, because, you know, he hates working-class whites. And without Pennsylvania’s — or Ohio’s, I suppose — working-class white people, he can’t beat McCain come November. Which is why the superdelegates must support Senator Clinton and her cheeseball soundtrack.

All of which leaves me wondering: for reals, has this sort of thing happened before in a modern Democratic primary? And by “this sort of thing,” I mean one candidate saying, explicitly, of his or her opponent: “he can’t beat the Republican nominee in the general election.” I suspect that the answer must be yes. But I think the argument has always been subtler than this: “I’m more electable,” rather than “he can’t be elected.” That’s a distinction with a difference, if you see what I mean. And coming on the heels of Senator Clinton’s still-impossible-to-fathom, “Senator McCain and I are the only candidates left who pass the Commander in Chief threshold,” I suppose I’m much more suspicious of Clinton’s latest attack than I would be otherwise.

Returning to the issue of context, Obama’s comments, beyond just the gotcha pull quote, are, if politically imperfect (okay, that’s generous), heartening. Roll tape:

Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long. They feel so betrayed by government that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by — it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.

But — so the questions you’re most likely to get about me, ‘Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What is the concrete thing?’ What they wanna hear is so we’ll give you talking points about what we’re proposing — to close tax loopholes, uh you know uh roll back the tax cuts for the top 1%, Obama’s gonna give tax breaks to uh middle-class folks and we’re gonna provide healthcare for every American.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of 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. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And 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 anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you’ll find is, is that people of every background — there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you’ll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I’d be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you’re doing what you’re doing.

As the EotAW continues its celebration of the New Deal’s 75th anniversary, I’m pleased that the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is reminding working-class whites, particularly those who identify as Reagan Democrats, that government can be a force for good. Very little that progressives care about will change for the better until this message gets through. So yes, Obama could have crafted his rhetoric – especially the word “bitter” – more carefully. But the context in which he used that word matters. So, too, does the context in which Obama’s rhetoric has been attacked.

Although I agree with Ezra Klein and Oliver Willis that this absurd mess can be traced back to bored journalists manufacturing a scandal so they have something to write about, I also think the story would have died a quick death had the Clinton campaign not used heroic measures to keep its feeble heart beating (the story’s, not the campaign’s, though that too). It seems that Senator Clinton is ready to poison the well, or scorch the earth, or whatever metaphor you prefer, to secure the nomination. That said, Theda Skocpol has it right: these tactics are as small as they are short-sighted. Unless, that is, you go in for conspiracy theories and think Clinton is setting the stage to run against President McCain four years from now, long after a disgraced Barack Obama, having lost the coming election, slinks from the limelight. I’m not ready to believe that just yet. But in the meantime, Senator Obama, once again, responded quickly to his critics. He asked the voters to pay attention to context. In the words of Ogged, over at Unfogged: “Good luck, man. You’re going to need it.”

Via Cogitamus.

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