Sunday, April 13, 2008

Professor Obama

I'm of two minds about this week's mini-flap about Barack Obama's comments to the effect that lower-middle class people react to economic stress with xenophobic sentiments about immigrants and minorities, and reactionary conservatism on social issues. Of course this is demonstrably true (these sentiments rise and fall in a statistically significant correlation with economic ups and downs), but it's the kind of thing that professors and columnists are supposed to educate us about. Politicians running for office need to cultivate a positive relationship with communities, not critique them.
On the one hand, I get queasy about the role of the media in the political process, amplifying stories about romantic and financial pecadillos, showing again and again how ridiculous Dukakis looked in a helmet, or Carter looked (or didn't even look) pushing a rabbit away with a canoe paddle, or Quayle telling the school kid that he had to put an "e" on the end of potato, or Bush Sr. allegedly not knowing about supermarket scanners (I think he was just trying to be polite), or even making some more substantive gaffe such as when Ford said that Soviet Poland was a democracy (he said it in a debate, I have no idea if he actually had that belief). I don't have a solution to the problem, but I get queasy, as I said, at the idea that a slip of the tongue can turn an election for President. I'm hoping that the unpredictable alchemy of these media storms doesn't produce a big problem for Obama this time because I don't think that would be fair (the point is that fairness isn't what runs these things).
On the other hand, there are a few observations about the general election and the Democratic candidate that it's not too late to make. Clinton has won all of the big states; the argument that Obama has won a greater number of states than Clinton is not a good argument. Most of those smaller states' electoral votes are going to the Republicans. Working class people, lower-educated people, union voters, older voters, rural Democrats, not to mention women, are all still leaning towards Clinton. Obama has pulled off a number of his wins largely on the strength of overwhelming black support: he has yet to show that he can get much more than 30 percent of white voters, anywhere. He is not, then, the populist hero in this race. That would be Hillary Clinton. And making theoretical observations about the resentments of working class whites like a law professor does not help.
Mary Matalin said on Meet the Press this morning that Obama and Clinton on the same ticket would be "a dream for Republicans." She often impresses me but in this case the opposite is true. Put them both on the ticket and Democratic victory is much more (not totally) assured. As to the numbers showing McCain-Rice beating either Democrat, forget it. It's the novelty of the suggestion exciting people. Rice has never campaigned, is the most undistinguished Secretary of State in memory, and it may very well be that the nominally good idea of pandering the Republicans out of trouble by putting a black woman on the ticket would turn out to be a dud. (Politics is rough stuff: I'd love to see a black woman on a national ticket, but I'd love a Democratic Party victory a lot more.)

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