When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama squared off this Sunday at a Pennsylvania forum on religious and moral values, John McCain, though offered an invitation, declined to take part. It’s hard to fault his absence. With the Democratic candidates busily tearing each other down – and tarnishing their party's brand in the process – a Republican opponent seemed entirely superfluous.
The latest round of infighting kicked off last week, with Obama's now-notorious judgment on working-class voters in economically depressed communities. Enlightening an affluent San Francisco audience about why these ostensibly benighted souls withheld their vote from the Democratic Party, Obama proffered the following explanation: "It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." True, the words “gun-toting, Bible-thumping hicks” never feartured in Obama’s remarks. But in every particular, the candidate seemed to share the senimtent.
Unsurprisingly, the statement touched off a firestorm. Aside from its obvious condescension – as if bitterness were the only possible explanation for why voters might attend church, favor gun rights or support the enforcement of immigration laws – it was noticeably inconsistent. Obama, after all, has made skepticism of free-trade a pillar of his campaign. Earlier this month, for example, he declared against the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. One might well wonder, borrowing Obama’s reasoning, whether something more sinister than pandering to unions informed his position.
The Clinton campaign did wonder. Hardly a model free-trader in her own right – Hillary joined most of her party in casting a vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement – she was ill-positioned to profit from Obama’s hypocrisy on trade. Nonetheless, Clinton succeeded in raising an impressive uproar against Obama’s off-the-cuff gaffe. Grasping for any cudgel against the frontrunner, Sen. Clinton condemned his comments as “elitist and out of touch.”
Before one could score the round for the senator from New York, however, she was exposed as a fraud. When a prying reporter had the temerity to question Clinton about her religious faith, she pointedly demurred. “That is not a relevant question for this debate,” she retorted. “We can answer that some other time.” Some time, presumably, after November.
Then the Obama campaign got in on the act. Scorning Clinton’s convenient embrace of gun rights – Clinton spent much of the weekend reminiscing about learning to shoot from her father as a young girl – Obama mocked his rival for suddenly discovering her inner “Annie Oakley.”
At the end of the day, the message from the Clinton camp seemed to boil down to this: We’ll take your elitist snob, and raise you our cynical opportunist.
How damaging “Bittergate” will be for Obama is as yet unclear, but one thing already seems obvious: It has done tremendous damage to a Democratic party already strained by internecine warfare. Among other things, it seems likely further to stratify the Democratic Party by race. As others have noted, Clinton is already the clear favorite among white, working-class Democrats, who have backed her in overwhelming numbers in places like Appalachia, Ohio. The fact that Obama apparently views these voters as a pitiable assortment of religious crazies, gun nuts and xenophobes seems unlikely to endear them to the party’s presumptive nominee.
More broadly, Obama’s remarks have confirmed what many have long suspected. Their protests to the contrary notwithstanding, many Democrats really do see white, working-class voters as rubes, seduced by the siren song of cultural conservatism into voting against their economic self-interests. In his 2004 book What’s The Matter With Kansas, a major hit with liberals after the last presidential election, writer Thomas Frank expressed his puzzlement that some voters failed to grasp that Democrats “are the party of workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized.” Such voters, Frank lectured, were “getting their fundamental interests wrong.” But it is one thing to see such naked condescension from a hard-Left polemicist. It is quite another to realize that it is shared – and openly at that – by the would-be standard bearer of the Democratic Party.
If there’s any clear-cut winner in the Democrats’ current civil war, it is John McCain, who can look on serenely as his opponents destroy each other. The point is not lost on Democrats and their media allies. Witness Ariana Huffington, who recently raged that “John McCain may as well take the next six months off, raise some money, maybe take a vacation -- because Hillary Clinton is out there doing his work for him.”
Such trepidation from Democratic ranks heralds a startling development.
Several months ago, it was popularly assumed that whoever the Democrats nominated would simply stroll to victory in November – so unpopular had the GOP become. But the seemingly endless backbiting between the Clinton and Obama camps suggests that it is the Democrats who will emerge most bloodied from the campaign season. And with his opponents landing their harshest blows against each other, it’s no wonder that John McCain didn’t bother to turn up in Pennsylvania on Sunday.