A ‘Bitter’ Misstep

The Wall Street Journal; by Kimberley A. Strassel; April 18, 2008

Speaking of “bitter,” here’s an individual who may now qualify for that description: Barack Obama.

Scandals come and go, and this election cycle has had its share of 24-hour news uproars. But every once in a while an event comes along that sticks, and in the process changes the political equation. Mr. Obama’s description at a San Francisco fund-raiser of “bitter,” small-town Americans who “cling” to their guns and their God is looking to be such a moment. Let us count the ways in which Mr. Obama might now be wishing he’d stuck to Internet fund raising:

– He has likely given Hillary Clinton a new lease on the Pennsylvania primary. A week ago, she was facing a mutiny, a mounting crowd of Democrats calling for her to quit. The Obama camp sniffed blood and was shooting for an upset that would end it all. He’s been outspending his rival two-to-one in the Keystone State, and had closed Mrs. Clinton’s double-digit leads to within the margin of error.

The Pennsylvania polls haven’t registered a post-“bitter” Obama dive, but his momentum has stalled. And while Mrs. Clinton has no greater prospect of catching him in pledged delegates than she did a week ago, a respectable win provides her with plenty of rationale to keep with it. Even Mr. Obama appears to have acknowledged this new reality, telling supporters yesterday that he now hoped to wrap things up in May. Maybe.

– He’s given Mrs. Clinton fresh superdelegate ammunition. The crux of the Clinton “electability” pitch is that Mr. Obama can’t win the white, working-class Democrats the party needs to gain the Oval Office. In Ohio, she trounced him 3-to-1 among white voters without a college degree – a group that made up half the electorate.

Up to now, Mr. Obama has gamely argued those voters will come around once he’s the nominee. Mrs. Clinton was always set to beat him among this set in Pennsylvania, but she can now spin that win into a case that Mr. Obama has actively alienated these voters, and that he can’t get their support come November.

– “Yes We Can” has devolved into “Who the Heck Is This Guy?” Mr. Obama’s political brilliance to date has been to use his message of hope to deflect questions about himself or his record. He’d actually created the perception that to challenge him was to challenge “hope” itself. Think back to that soaring race speech, which so successfully turned the debate toward America’s shared problem, and away from Mr. Obama’s individual Jeremiah Wright problem. But the San Fran comments proved one scandal too many; man and message have now been delinked.

And so nearly the whole first hour of Wednesday’s debate was devoted to Mr. Obama’s gun-God comments, his wisdom in sticking with a rabid pastor, his links to 1960s radicals, even his patriotism. The candidate’s frustration was visible, and he spent yesterday complaining the debate was the latest in “gotcha games” that take away from the “issues.” Then again, among the important “issues” for many voters are a candidate’s beliefs, character and judgment. Mr. Obama will just have to get used to it.

– Among the people who now get to ask these uncomfortable questions is Mrs. Clinton herself. Granted, a full-frontal assault against Mr. Obama is dangerous territory for a woman who only recently was ducking incoming Bosnia fire, and who inches up in the unfavorability ratings with each new poll. But if Wednesday’s gloves-off debate performance was anything to go by, Mrs. Clinton now sees at least a yellow light to join the Obama dissection.

– The press is no longer in the tank. Debate moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos proved Mr. Obama’s waking nightmare. This isn’t bias, so much as a belated recognition by the media that maybe it doesn’t know its subject matter as well as it might. Never underestimate the press’s ability to fall back in love with a young, charismatic idealist. But for now, the gloss is off.

Condescension aside, the political point Mr. Obama was making at his fund-raiser was that Democrats need to get voters thinking about the economy, since his party struggles when the discussion is social or cultural issues. (Recall Howard Dean’s 2004 moan that Southerners were so riveted on “God, guns and gays” that they wouldn’t acknowledge the brilliance of his plans for education or health care.)

So there is some irony that Mr. Obama has guaranteed this political cycle will now contain a hefty focus on . . . church and guns. The latter, by the way, is an issue some Democrats still “bitterly” credit for losing Al Gore key states in 2000. Sure enough, firearms made a prominent appearance at Wednesday’s debate, forcing both candidates (who’ve spent the past week lauding American gun “traditions”) to remember they were still fighting in a liberal, gun-control primary. Their hem-and-haw answers surely left neither gun-owners nor gun-haters happy, guaranteeing future discussion.

It’s unclear if or how Mr. Obama’s comments will play longer term, assuming he’s the nominee. But consider this: It is no longer the case that top Republicans are rooting for Mrs. Clinton, who has been long viewed as the weaker opponent. This past week filled GOP heads with visions of Michael Dukakis, as Mr. Obama revealed his liberal, inner, out-of-touch self.

At least a few on the right have decided that if the choice is between getting voters to remember why they didn’t like Mrs. Clinton 15 years ago, or getting voters to remember why they didn’t like Mr. Obama a few minutes ago, they’ll take the fresher memories.

This primary is still Mr. Obama’s to lose. This presidential election is still the Democrats’ to lose. Nonetheless, with a few off-the-cuff remarks, Mr. Obama has made all of it a little less clear.

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One comment

  1. I can’t wait til Fall when whoever gets the nomination heads out to the “ole duck pond” for a day of pretend hunting….”Fool Me once shame on You, fool me twice shame on me”!! Either one of these 2 will take any and all of the firearms they can…

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