I’ve gotten asked by a lot of readers what I make of this whole “bitter” controversy. So a few thoughts.
In cases such as this I think it is always crucial to distinguish in our own minds between what we find offensive and what we’ve been conditioned to believe that others will find offensive. And perhaps even more importantly, what others will be able to twist and distort into something that other people will find offensive.
Each of those categories is important. But I find the exercise marvelously clarifying in thinking about how to understand these blow-ups when they happen.
In this case, I didn’t think what he said was offensive. Of course, I don’t live in a small town or in rural America. But then again, neither do any of the other people I’ve heard sound off on this topic. So I’m in good company. (This has been one of the more comedic aspects of this 72 hours — watching a cavalcade of extremely wealthy pundits, editorialists and political operatives from New York and Washington tell me how rural Americans won’t stand for this.) My understanding is that Obama was answering a question from someone who planned to go canvass for him in Pennsylvania and what they should expect since it’s portrayed as being unfriendly ground for him. And what I understood him to be saying is that years of economic abandonment have left many communities in middle America even more reliant on community, tradition, their religion, etc. — and from a political standpoint very protective of it.
I think he said much the same thing in this interview from 2004 which I published over the weekend. He said it more artfully, probably less apt to being spun out of control in a campaign echo-chamber.
So, with the obligatory, yes, he could have worded it better, do I think it was offensive and condescending? No. I don’t. Do I think it can be spun into something offensive and condescending? Sure. That was obvious right off the bat. And how effective will it be against him or damaging to him? I’m not certain. From recent, bitter experience we all know of many instances where someone has been badly damaged politically for remarks which while inoffensive or explainable in themselves, nonetheless get spun and eventually received in a damaging way. So in a very real way, what’s ‘fair’ in these cases is beside the point.
I’m skeptical that this will be as damaging to Obama as a lot of people seem to think. But who knows? We’ll know in a few days.
What I do know is that this basic thought, often expressed in much less charitable ways, is commonplace in Democratic policy and political circles. And I have little doubt they’ve been expressed many times by both of the Clintons and her advisors. So speaking for myself I’ve spent too much time over, what, 15 years now? … defending both Clintons from similarly ginned up nonsense to have much energy left to help out as they pull the same puffed up outrage act against another Democrat. I guess I’m just not feeling it.
With the Wright business and now with this, the more nuanced version of the Clinton line has been that what ‘we’ think is not really the point. It’s what Republicans will do with it in the fall. And that’s a real concern that I definitely have. I won’t deny it. I’ve never thought Obama was a perfect candidate. But as we get deeper into the primary calendar, increasingly so, this ‘what the Republicans will do’ line has become more of a simulacrum, or a license, if you will, to do what Republicans actually do do. That is to say, to grab for political advantage by peddling stereotypes about Democrats and liberals that are really no less offensive than the ones we’re talking about about Americans from small town and rural America.
And seeing Hillary go on about how Obama has contempt for folks in small town America, how he’s elitist, well … no, it’s not because I think she’s either. I never have. But after seeing her hit unfairly with just the same stuff for years, it just encapsulates the last three-plus months of her campaign which I can only describe as a furious descent into nonsense and self-parody. Part of it makes me want to cry. But at this point all I can really do is laugh.