Monday, April 28, 2008

Obama's "Bitter" Remark

"So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

And thus Obama made his first major, even fatal campaign flaw of this election cycle. Nothing thus has far has pierced his Teflon hide; except perhaps the gnawing irritation of the Reverend Wright controversy for which he has failed to put away. But this “bitter” gaffe was solely his in the making, and it hit a historical nerve.

It did so because it is beginning to fit a damning narrative that has for too many election cycles consigned the Democrats to electoral defeat: the social crusader ostensibly championing the cause of minorities and labor out of noblesse oblige but exposed as an out-of-touch cultural and intellectual elite. Democratic party leaders and super-delegates remember all too well the noble intentions but foiled ambitions of Dukakis and Gore and the campaign ad featuring John Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket in 2004. Watch for the "bitter" problem, now temporarily drowned out because of the Wright noises, to resurface should Obama win the nomination.

Others may think that Obama will easily weather this storm, but his campaign decided to err on the side of caution. Revealingly, Obama finally relented and interviewed with FoxNews’s Chris Wallace, after 772 days of desisting, two weeks after Obama’s "bitter" comments, and a week after his primary defeat in Pennsylvania to Hillary Clinton. His campaign decided that he had to deal with his white working class problem, and where else to better reach this constituency than on FoxNews. There are resilient patterns in American politics: just about the surest way to lose an election is to allow oneself to be painted as an out-of-touch elite. And so the former law professor dutifully learned to enjoy waffles and to bowl.

Super-delegates thinking about Hillary Clinton’s “eligibility” argument will have to wrestle with the changing profile of the Democratic party’s base and whether they are content with appeasing core supporters among the latte-drinking college-educated liberal crowd. In 1988, 2000, and 2004, these supporters were not sufficient to deliver their champions into the White House. If 2008 is to prove to be a Democratic year, a litmus test I propose is whether Obama succeeds in unapologetically reconfiguring the Democratic party so that in effect, it takes the White House without the white blue-collar vote. Now that would be the audacity of hope.

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