The most extraordinary presidential primary season since 1976, when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan competed for delegates right up to the eve of the Republican National Convention, is nearly over. Cynics and late-night comics no doubt will heave a well-practiced sigh of relief and pretend, as best they can, that the historic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was just another boring distraction from the important business of personal consumption and celebrity worship. Presumably, there are some of us who disagree and who would judge the last six months or so to be an important milestone in American history.
Now that we are on the verge of an election unlike any since 1928, when Al Smith became the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination, it might be worth taking a look back at one of the more intriguing controversies of the primary season: Bittergate.
You’ll recall, of course, that Barack Obama found himself on the defensive before the Pennsylvania primary, when he described some working-class, small-town Americans as “bitter.” He went on to say, not very elegantly, that this bitterness may help to explain why so many working-class people “cling” to religion and guns.
Obama’s remarks were the rhetorical lowlight of a campaign notable for its remarkable facility with words. The senator from Illinois is the finest public speaker to run for president since Reagan. Obama’s supporters might well object to the comparison because Obama’s eloquence often is spontaneous and unscripted, quite unlike Reagan’s. That is true, but Bittergate suggests that perhaps a bit more scripting would have come in handy.
Senators Clinton and McCain assailed Obama for his remarks, and to the extent that he seemed condescending toward small-town, less-than-affluent white voters, they were right to call him on it. Several commentators, including George Will and Michael Barone, pointed out that it is impossible to imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking in such tones about Americans down on their luck during the Depression.
There is no question that Obama sounded like an upper-middle-class professional baffled by the irrational behavior of his social inferiors. I doubt Obama meant it that way, but I have been in the company of people who have made similar remarks about practicing Catholics, evangelical Christians and conservative Jews—and they meant every word of it. At the risk of generalizing, it seems likely that Obama’s formulation inspired more than a few nods of approval from one of his core constituent groups, the trendy left.
All of that being said, the lesson of Bittergate is clear. Political candidates had better be careful in discussing the plight of Americans who have lost jobs, health insurance and their optimism over the last quarter-century. If they dare suggest that some Americans have reason to feel left out and even betrayed by the nation’s economic changes, critics will question their patriotism and their sensibilities. Senator Clinton accused Senator Obama of elitism, which surely is the first time a major African-American political figure has been accused of such an offense. The charge was made not long after news reports showed that the Clintons have made more than $100 million over the last seven years, suggesting that she and her husband have not exactly been lugging lunchpails to work since leaving the White House.
While nobody has done much polling on the extent of bitterness among working-class American households, it is hard to imagine that Obama was far off the mark. Anybody who has traveled through the nation’s Rust Belt in recent years has witnessed the effects of globalization and free trade on American workers. The great American job began disappearing in the early 1980s, leaving behind workers who put their faith in the American dream and in politicians who said they wished to facilitate those dreams. Many of those very politicians were part of the free-trade consensus that shipped blue-collar jobs, with their health benefits and other expensive perks, overseas. Bitter? How could they not be?
Even those who are part of the bi-coastal, information-age, entertainment-rich, city-centered economy of the 21st century know that millions of Americans lack health insurance. News reports regularly remind us of parents who cannot afford medication for sick children and of families buried in debt because of a catastrophic illness or accident.
The free-marketeers explain that we cannot have national health insurance because the free market works best and government programs, like Canada’s, are terribly inefficient. The free-marketeers explain that globalization helps everybody, that government interference in the market slows down the dynamism of unregulated capitalism. But when an institution like the financial firm Bear Stearns nears the abyss, government rushes in to make sure that failure is not an option. A displaced worker or a parent without health insurance might well wonder why the free market is good for them but not for Bear Stearns.
Bitter? I’d be bitter, too, if I lived in Flint, or Gary, or Buffalo, or Allentown or any of the old industrial cities that have been stripped of jobs and dignity in the name of a new economic order that has enriched an elite few, the Clintons included.
Barack Obama could have and should have stayed away from his religion-and-guns formulation. But he was not wrong to suggest that not all Americans have reason to celebrate the 21st-century economy and the people who wrote its rules.