Krugman asks "what's gone wrong" with Obama campaign

Paul Krugman continues a line of negative columns about Barack Obama, and suggests an alternative explanation for why working-class whites aren't voting for Obama.

By Alex Koppelman
Published April 26, 2008 3:20AM (UTC)
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The New York Times' Paul Krugman hasn't been holding back on Barack Obama, and his most recent column is no exception. In it, he talks about a "comedown" for Obama's campaign and writes, "A few months ago the Obama campaign was talking about transcendence. Now it's talking about math. 'Yes we can' has become 'No she can't.'" And he says: "The question Democrats, both inside and outside the Obama campaign, should be asking themselves is this: now that the magic has dissipated, what is the campaign about? More generally, what are the Democrats for in this election?"

But the meat of Krugman's column is his explanation for why Obama has been unable to break Hillary Clinton's hold on working-class white Democrats. Krugman asserts that "According to many Obama supporters, it's all Hillary’s fault. If she hadn't launched all those vile, negative attacks on their hero -- if she had just gone away -- his aura would be intact, and his mission of unifying America still on track." Krugman offers his own theory:

[M]aybe his transformational campaign isn't winning over working-class voters because transformation isn't what they're looking for.

From the beginning, I wondered what Mr. Obama's soaring rhetoric, his talk of a new politics and declarations that "we are the ones we’ve been waiting for" (waiting for to do what, exactly?) would mean to families troubled by lagging wages, insecure jobs and fear of losing health coverage. The answer, from Ohio and Pennsylvania, seems pretty clear: not much. Mrs. Clinton has been able to stay in the race, against heavy odds, largely because her no-nonsense style, her obvious interest in the wonkish details of policy, resonate with many voters in a way that Mr. Obama's eloquence does not.

Yes, I know that there are lots of policy proposals on the Obama campaign's Web site. But addressing the real concerns of working Americans isn't the campaign’s central theme.

There are some flaws in Krugman's analysis. For example, he doesn't take into account the possibility that some of Clinton's votes may be coming from residual support for Bill Clinton. And Krugman's argument doesn't appear to be based on objective data, just his gut. But overall, he's probably pretty close to the mark on this one. (And I'm not trying to put down the Obama campaign here -- Obama's strategists knew where their base would be, and have largely focused their message in that direction. Clinton has done the same thing. That's what's led to what Krugman describes, I think.)

Certainly the argument that recent attacks coming from the Clinton campaign account for her popularity in the demographic is problematic. Earlier this month in Salon, Michael Lind wrote:

According to Gallup, last August -- months before the mythical race baiting is supposed to have begun -- Clinton led among high-school-educated Democrats and tied Obama among more-educated voters in a multi-candidate race. Since then there has been a growth in Obama's support among educated Democrats, as other candidates have dropped out, but no augmentation of Clinton's support in general. The legions of racist white voters alleged to have been driven by subtle race baiting into the Clinton camp following the early primaries do not exist.

Additionally, I don't think there's much merit generally to the idea that a substantial number of white Democrats would hesitate to vote for Obama because of his race. (You can see the article I wrote earlier this year on the "Bradley Effect" for more on that.)

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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