What Pennsylvania tells us

Obama's still struggling with white working-class voters. There's still time for him to deal with it -- but Clinton just bought herself some time, too.

Published April 24, 2008 2:56AM (EDT)

Barack Obama handled his Pennsylvania loss well. He gave one of his best speeches of late, with more specifics than usual. He's learned from his losses in Pennsylvania and other big swing states that he can't write off the working class. (Or rather, the white working class; I haven't seen precise enough polls to tell me how Obama is doing with the black working class. Pollsters?)

He talked about "people sitting at their kitchen table paying bills" and peppered it with specifics about healthcare, job loss and the mortgage crisis. He sounded like John Edwards sometimes, and that wasn't just the John Mellencamp soundtrack behind him.

Despite her solid victory, the odds are still against a Hillary Clinton comeback, but I continue to think the ongoing Democratic race is good for the party whoever is the ultimate nominee. If it's Obama, I'd rather have him stumbling over his "bitter" comments about working-class voters in April than October. I'd rather have him, and the party, paying attention to his difficulties with key Democratic constituencies now, rather than October.

And the nominee still could be Clinton, though that's unlikely. What I don't like about the current stalemate is that so many people who are not Barack Obama supporters insist Clinton's victories have nothing to do with the real concerns of her supporters; they argue it's either racism, or just old machine politics, with Clinton ward heelers paying their dues and turning out votes. "They [the Clintons] believe it's their party, to do with what they will. That is the Clinton attitude," said Chris Matthews on MSNBC after the Clinton speech, with Keith Olbermann murmuring darkly alongside him. This is just extraordinarily silly.

Obama understands, although some of his supporters do not, that he is driving a car with at least one flat tire into the general election if current trends continue. He has several more contests to broaden his appeal, and he still can do it. But I agreed with ABC's Jake Tapper today (disclosure: he's an old friend and a former Salon staffer) that there's something a little bewildering about stone-tablet insistence Obama just can't win states like Pennsylvania or Ohio. Why not? Seriously. He'll have another shot in Indiana, where he's been ahead, though right now he trails Clinton slightly.

I loved Andrew O'Hehir's piece Monday. I think he made a huge contribution to our long-term understanding of this race, just as Sean Wilentz, Brad DeLong and Michael Lind all did. He made me think about what's at stake this year a little differently. As much as I admire Obama, I confess that given the nature of his support, it's been easy for me to think of Obama as George McGovern. But the notion of the Clinton forces being similar to Mondale supporters was mind-opening. Clearly the party can lose either way -- by nominating the candidate of the elites and African-Americans (who are clearly disproportionately not among the elites), or by nominating someone who represents mainly older white voters. The only way through it is to acknowledge the gulf, and to root for both candidates to narrow it.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections