The Worst Thing I’ve Heard Obama Say

Slate; by Melinda Henneberger; April 13, 2008

Yes, it is galling to be tagged as out of touch by Hillary “Is that sniper fire I hear?’ Clinton. Only, she happens to be right: Barack Obama’s suggestion that economically suffering small-town Americans are haters who cling to God and guns out of bitterness is a way bigger deal than he seems to realize, even now. Five years into an unpopular war, and with the economy tanking, the widely held and absolutely poisonous perception that Democrats tend to look down on Mr. and Mrs. Middle America—and on their religious faith in particular—may be the most serious obstacle to the party’s presidential hopes this year. Yet here’s Obama not apologizing: “If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that,” he told the Winston-Salem Journal. Poor wording was not the problem; on the contrary, it was his precision that was so unfortunate, and his ability to pack half a dozen unintended insults into a single sentence uncanny. And in San Francisco, no less? Roger Ailes couldn’t have planned it better, unless he’d maybe followed up the event with some impromptu windsurfing in the bay. Here’s what preceded the problem sentence:

You go into some of 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.

With this, who could argue? So far, so good. But then, straight into the ditch:

“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter,” (Angry, OK, but bitter? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe someone they liked that way.)

“they cling to guns” (If they had jobs, maybe they wouldn’t be gun nuts?)

“or religion” (Or religious nuts, either? This is an especially weird conclusion since Obama himself is a devout Christian; was he pandering to the segment of the party that does see believers that way?)

“or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” (So no wonder such a lot of them are haters?)

“or anti-immigrant sentiment” (Who blame their troubles on people who’ll live in concrete-block squalor while picking fruit for next to nothing.)

“or anti-trade sentiment” (And don’t see the big picture on globalization and free trade like you Davos-goers do.)

“as a way to explain their frustrations.” (In lieu of a Harvard Law degree.)

I grew up in the kind of town Obama is talking about and went back there to talk to people about their political motivations for my book about women voters in pockets of the country where, as Obama says, the factories have closed, the jobs have gone away, and people see scant evidence that anyone in either party actually gives a hoot. As I wrote in the book, my hometown of Mount Carmel, Ill., population 8,000, sits on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River. It’s a pretty little farm town—or was, before the Target moved in, wiped out Market Street, and then moved on, like a bad storm. When I brought my New Yorker husband home for the first time 20 years ago, he couldn’t believe how long it took us to run a couple of errands on our bustling main street; compact as it was, we stopped so often to talk that he said he felt like he’d wandered onto the set of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, with a crowd of neighbors yoo-hooing, “Merry Christmas, George!” But these days, whole minutes can go by in which nothing moves on Market Street; social services are the only growth industry, and the traffic lights only blink now, instead of changing from red to green, so you don’t have to sit there waiting when there’s no other car in sight. The tool factory that had been a major employer since the 1930s closed a few years back, and my best friend from high school finally had to move away just last fall, after the coal mine where her husband worked shut down.

When I went back there, and visited similar small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, one thing I heard over and over—from registered Democrats!—was that their national party leaders were elitists who couldn’t seem to relate to their struggles. Again and again, they brought up Kerry’s windsurfing as proof positive of the kind of elitism that was turning them into Republicans. Here’s how a high-school teacher in Fairfield, Ill., put it: “I used to be a Democrat, and I’m still very much independent. I voted for Clinton [in '92 and '96]. I’m religious but not a fanatic; I see a lot of gray. My mother has Alzheimer’s, so I’m for stem-cell research, and I’m not against people’s right to an abortion.” But Kerry “just struck me as arrogant,” while Bush inspired “the feeling that this was a more open person who would not be “I’m important and you’re not.’ ” And yes, Fox News exists to whip up such sentiments, but it only works when Democrats foolishly hand them fresh material.

Sure, they’re angry and they do “cling” to guns and God, though not in that order. But it’s connecting the two that’s belittling in the extreme to the “average white person”—to cite a phrase I chose to overlook at the time. Now, if Obama is sticking by the essence of what he said out of stubbornness or arrogance, that’s one kind of problem. But if he really doesn’t see why this could be a game-changer, that’s worse. And though I’ve been pretty unrelievedly positive about the guy, it’s the first thing he’s said that’s made me question his ability to win.

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