Monday, April 14, 2008

Obama and the perils of Cling-gate

Can Bill and Hillary achieve Restoration by exploiting Cling-gate?

Perhaps the small-town burghers and downscale workers of Pennsylvania will answer that question when they vote in the primary eight days hence. But, until then, all we can do is speculate - and marvel at the notion that the outcome of this Democratic death march might actually hinge on a single ill-considered verb.

No doubt you know the verb already, but I'll highlight it anyway. Here was Barack Obama, recorded a week ago at a private fundraiser: "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...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."

As Obama told an audience of steelworkers last night, "I am not a perfect man and the words I chose, I chose badly." He certainly did. Politically, that latter sentence is a potential train wreck. The Democrats have been trying for several decades to reconnect with the white culturally-conservative working stiffs who exited the party during the Reagan era, and it's questionable whether the reconnection process can be enhanced by implying (however inadvertently) that these voters react to hard times by "clinging" to their God and their guns.

Church-goers don't "cling" to religion out of bitterness; they tend to see religion as an affirmative pursuit, in both good times and bad. And small-town Pennsylvanians don't "cling" to guns out of bitterness; they happen to enjoy hunting, in a state where hunting has long been a tradition (at least outside of the Obama-friendly Philadelphia region). Obviously, Obama did not intend to paint these folks as dummies who worship and shoot only because they have nothing better to do - why would he want to insult people whose votes he has been seeking? - but that's how the sentence reads. And it would appear that his uphill climb in Pennsylvania has become a bit steeper, given the fact that those people are also the swing voters in this primary.

Nevertheless, it's fair to ask - in the interests of proportionality - whether a race such as this, with so much at stake at home and abroad, should hinge on some errant phrasing. The Hillary Clinton counterattack this weekend was truly something to behold; the barrage of Saturday afternoon messages in my email box (11 in six hours) prompted me to suspect that perhaps Obama had promised on Day One to convert to Islam and make it the national religion.

If you want to enjoy a belly laugh, here are three reliable suggestions: (1) rent an old Woody Allen movie, especially Bananas, (2) rent Borat, or (3) listen to Hillary Clinton, of all people, attack Barack Obama as "elitist."

This is the same woman who, during the past seven years, as evidenced by her tax returns with Bill, has become a millionaire 109 times over; whose husband has long supported the Colombian free-trade deal (which is deemed hurtful to American workers), and long defended his signing of NAFTA (also hurtful); whose husband earned $800,000 in speech fees from Colombian interests; who, during her Senate career, voted in favor of confiscating guns during a national emergency (one of only 16 senators to do so; Obama voted against confiscation); and who, during the Democratic debates, has refused to shed any light on why the Clintons are safeguarding the identities of the global heavy hitters who are bankrolling the Clinton Presidential Library...and whether any quid pro quos are involved. Not to mention any deals that may have been struck with the felons whom Bill pardoned in his final days as president (the Clintons are blocking release of those records as well).

The Republicans are also trying to paint Obama as "elitist," but that's the standard GOP template (twice used successfully by George W. Bush - a graduate of Phillips Academy Andover, Yale University, and Harvard Business School, son of a former president and grandson of a former U.S. senator). It's particularly amusing to hear that "elitist" label being thrown around by John McCain, given the fact that McCain is married to a multimillionaire heiress; that McCain wants to extend the Bush tax cuts that help the rich at the expense of the working class; and that he has spent weeks tweaking his mortgage assistance proposal, which originally offered homeowners the same quality of aid that Herbert Hoover extended to Great Depression victims nearly 80 years ago. (Another thigh-slapper: William Kristol - descendent of a Manhattan intellectual family, and son of a New York University professor - used his New York Times column today to argue that Cling-gate is proof of Obama's attitudinal ties to...Karl Marx.)

But I digress. Hillary was more fun to watch this weekend, as she went into blue-collar overdrive - waxing nostalgic about how as a youngster she was taught to shoot a gun; walking into a bar and downing a drink in one gulp; telling a faith forum last night how she always feels "the enveloping support and love of God" tomorrow, I half expect to see her marching in the Lehigh Valley, clad in a bowling shirt, with a 12-gauge in one hand and the New Testament in the other, with John Mellencamp's "Small Town" blasting on a loudspeaker.

But that's politics. If she can successfully brand as "elitist" a guy who was raised by a single mother far from the comfortable suburban trappings that she enjoyed as a child...well, to the victor goes the spoils. If Cling-gate buoys her Pennsylvania vote tally, and helps her surpass the 10-point margin she won in Ohio, Obama will have to deal with the consequences - including talk, encouraged by the Clinton camp, that he's just another rareified Adlai Stevenson egghead.

Hillary will take it to him during the debate on Wednesday night, probably in the first 10 minutes (unless they reprise the traditional opening spat over who has the better health insurance plan). His challenge is similar to what happened during the Wright controversy. He has to turn this flap to his advantage, reframe the issue in a broader context, make the case for an economic populism that connects with Pennsylvania's working-class voters - and force Hillary to explain why those same voters, long ignored and taken for granted, received so little help from the Bill Clinton administration.

Obama screwed up badly during that fundraiser in San Francisco. But it's the successful politician who bounces back from adversity, aided by outsize powers of persuasion. He tried out a few lines last night, and no doubt there will be more. We'll soon see whether Obama has the gift that saved Bill Clinton from Bimbo-gate in 1992.


Regarding any further thoughts on Cling-gate, I'm guesting tonight on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show," sharing a segment with Joe Klein of Time magazine. Bob Casey holds forth during the first 30 minutes.


In a Sunday print column, I wrote about the "experience" issue, with the inevitable historical references.


Last night, during the sixth installment of HBO's splendid John Adams miniseries, the president was urged by his fellow Federalist party members to drum up war fever against France. Even though the partisans were well aware that France posed no real threat, they insisted that if the president stoked war sentiment, he and his party would benefit greatly during the imminent election season. But Adams, concerned with dividing his countrymen and sowing domestic factionalism, adamantly refused.

Imagine a president behaving like that.