Don't blame San Francisco for Obama's "Bittergate"

Candidates pander to wealthy donors in every city, not just mine!

Published April 16, 2008 11:01AM (EDT)

I've seen a lot of dumb excuses for Barack Obama's regrettable remarks about "bitter" Pennsylvania voters who "cling" to God, guns and narrow-mindedness in the last few days. But maybe the dumbest are the ones that blame my city, San Francisco. According to the New York Sun, Obama backer Daniel Gerstein opined that "Obama's mistake was not just what he said ... but where he said it -- in San Francisco, a center of liberalism often derided by Republicans as culturally apart from the rest of America. 'The first rule for Obama is: Stop going to San Francisco,' Mr. Gerstein said." My MSNBC buddy Pat Buchanan picked up that refrain from the right, complaining that Obama's remarks were made "behind closed doors to the Chablis-and-brie set of San Francisco, in response to a question as to why he was not doing better in that benighted and barbarous land they call Pennsylvania."

Of course that's silly. Clearly, Obama could just as easily have made his gaffe at a fundraiser on Wall Street or K Street. In fact, one of my favorite Hillary Clinton moments, part of the process in which she earned my somewhat grudging respect over the last seven years, came at a 2005 San Francisco fundraiser -- where, ironically, she was also talking about Pennsylvania voters. She told a room full of wealthy, liberal San Francisco Democratic donors at the home of Mark and Susie Tompkins Buell that they had to support Bob Casey's 2006 Senate bid, despite his opposition to abortion. It was a Clinton for Senate fundraiser, and she got some good-natured hisses for her pro-Casey remarks. But Clinton made the case that Casey was good on economic issues and the war, and that it was crucial to defeat right-wing Rick Santorum, and I was impressed that she didn't pander to the pro-choice crowd. Of course, Casey recently repaid Clinton by endorsing Obama. That's just politics.

It's also just politics that Clinton is now bludgeoning Obama with his "bitter" remarks, but I have to confess to mixed feelings about the political battle. As I wrote Friday night, although Obama can sometimes seem glib and a little bit above it (us?) all, I believe he would be a populist president who would narrow the political and wealth gaps between rich and poor in this country. So Clinton's caricature of him based on the "bitter" remark seems unfair. On the other hand, it was a mistake on Obama's part, and as Clinton has noted, it's a particular type of mistake -- seeming out of touch with blue-collar Americans -- that has doomed Democrats in the last 40 years. Her long-shot candidacy is based on voters (and superdelegates) having second thoughts about the impressive newcomer's electability, and the combination of his original verbal flub, plus his campaign's handling of it, adds up to a campaign stumble that, given the stakes, is fair game in a heated primary. As I've said before, take Clinton's worst criticism, multiply it by 1,000, and you'll have the GOP playbook for Obama come fall.

I'd like to say I'm politically savvy enough to have predicted the continuing firestorm over Obama's remarks when it broke last week. But anyone who reads this blog knows I mostly didn't. It was probably wishful thinking: I saw the problem in his words right away, and I knew they could make trouble for him. But I hoped they wouldn't, since this seemed to be the kind of style-over-substance kerfuffle that can make people tune out politics.

However, the Obama campaign has done several things to help keep the fire burning. The candidate's frank, feisty, populist retort the day the story broke won me to the side of his defenders. But his campaign's subsequent parsing of his remarks -- ignoring his use of the condescending word "cling," as well as the context of a tony fundraiser -- has gotten the candidate deeper in a hole. Obama's deriding Clinton as "Annie Oakley" and asking sarcastically if she brought "a six-shooter" into the "duck blind" just created new ripples. While Clinton's defense of guns didn't entirely ring true, Obama's confusing a six-shooter with a hunting rifle worsened his trouble with the gun crowd (or so I've read; I'm not going to pretend I knew the difference). Plus it was overly angry and defensive, when his early remarks were feisty but apologetic and graceful. And the smug, self-righteous, anti-working class bias of a few of his defenders, in Salon letters threads and elsewhere, didn't help matters; they'll become case studies of why Obama stumbled electorally if his presidential bid should ultimately fail.

The problem for Obama is that gaffes have staying power when they seem to represent not merely a poor choice of words, but an unsettling underlying truth about the speaker. For Clinton, "Snipergate" had legs because it seemed to confirm a couple of common criticisms: that she was exaggerating the importance of her experience as first lady, and that she (and her husband) would say or do virtually anything, including lie, to win her the White House. Obama is having trouble shaking "Bittergate" because it seems to confirm a couple of worries about him: One, that he's a terrific but untested politician who's gotten a remarkably easy ride from the media, and might stumble more in a long, tough race.

The other worry is more about Obama's base of support than about Obama himself, but it could doom his candidacy: that despite his impressive showing so far in the 2008 primary season, he's still mostly the candidate of coastal liberals, lefty intellectuals, Ivy League check-writers and African-Americans, and he isn't doing enough to reach the white working-class voters that a Democrat will need to beat John McCain in November. Angry Obama supporters can shriek about this, and insist that those who are immune to his charms are either racists, or Hillary Clinton shills, or both. But that won't change the electoral math: John Judis lays it out here.

Hillary Clinton is exploiting "Bittergate" to take advantage of both sets of worries about Obama's candidacy, but there's still time for him to fight her off. Personally, I hope the campaign moves to higher ground soon. I have no doubt that Obama would be a better president for working-class Americans than John McCain. But they're the ones who will have to decide that for themselves. We'll get more than a clue about what they're thinking in the next few primaries.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections