Corrected on 4/14/2008: An earlier version of this article had Marc Ambinder's name spelled incorrectly and incorrectly paraphrased an Adlai Stevenson quote. Adlai Stevenson's quip that if a majority of thinking people supported him, that wouldn't be enough because "I need a majority."
Much has been made of Barack Obama's comments at an April 6 fundraiser in the San Francisco Bay Area: "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama said. "And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
The account comes from one Mayfill Flower of the left-leaning Huffington Post and was reported on Friday, April 11. Evidently, these remarks were made at one of three Bay Area big-bucks fundraisers that day, at Gordon and Ann Getty's house, portrayed by Zombietime as on "billionaires row." Here's Obama's try at extricating himself from charges of elite condescension and snobbery.
John McCain's campaign pounced quickly:
"It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," McCain adviser Steve Schmidt said. "It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."
Hard to argue with that. Ditto Hillary Clinton's response:
"I saw in the media it's being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter. Well, that's not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard every day for a better future, for themselves and their children. Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them; they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families."
For more interesting responses, see John Podhoretz on Obama's ultimate condescension, a long Tom Maguire post, John Hinderaker's conclusion that this makes Obama unelectable, ditto from the redoubtable Ed Morrissey, a tough Gateway Pundit collection
"Senator Obama has said many times in this campaign that Americans are understandably upset with their leaders in Washington for saying anything to win elections while failing to stand up to the special interests and fight for an economic agenda that will bring jobs and opportunity back to struggling communities. And if John McCain wants a debate about who's out of touch with the American people, we can start by talking about the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans that he once said offended his conscience but now wants to make permanent."
I'm inclined to endorse most of these sentiments and to add a few observations of my own. Contrary to the usually sound analyses of Marc Ambinder, I believe that Obama's words are not really defensible—and are a major problem for him as the Democratic nominee. Per Ambinder, he is parroting the argument of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, but the problem is that Frank, like Obama in these comments at the Gettys' multimillion-dollar house, is hugely condescending to voters. Frank's argument is that low earners are too stupid to realize that their real interests are in voting Democratic and that they are hugely stupid for voting Republican because of their religious beliefs or their views on trade (which are presumably similar to Obama's truckling-to-the-AFL-CIO views—or Hillary Clinton's) or their views on gun control or their anti-immigrant sentiments.
Obama is saying this to an audience that is willing to subordinate its own short-term interest on economic issues (i.e., lower tax rates) to its belief in reproductive rights (which equals killing babies, in the views of some fellow citizens) or in welcoming immigrants (a lot easier to get household help; anybody check the green cards on the 2800 block of Broadway?) or whatever. The implication is that low earners are not to be counted as rational unless they vote on their short-term economic interest while high earners should be counted as not only rational but enlightened if they are willing to vote (and max out contributions to candidates) despite their short-term economic interest. (I am leaving aside the possibility that voters on each side might decide that their short-term economic interests are not in the long-term economic interests of either themselves or the nation in whose interests both sides try to serve.) Bribe those poor dummies to vote for our side, and we can get them to back reproductive rights and civil unions and defeat in Iraq and all the rest of the "progressive" agenda.
But why should we assume that low earners in Pennsylvania towns are any less idealistically motivated than the rich people who thronged to the billionaires' 2800 block of Broadway in San Francisco? My own sense is that they're both motivated by strong morally based beliefs and trying as best they can to act on them. The assumption behind Obama's words is that low earners in Pennsylvania are seething with anger because they cannot afford the designer clothes and exquisite interior decoration that people on the 2800 block of Broadway can afford. I doubt it. I've been in the Gordon and Ann Getty house—in 1984, at a dinner the week before the 1984 Democratic National Convention—and I can tell you that it is beautiful indeed. But I've been in a lot of other houses in America that are hugely less expensive and exquisitely decorated, and I think the people who live there don't believe they are hugely deprived or oppressed.
In any case, Americans who don't like the opportunities they have where they are can move elsewhere, and many have. What the census data tell us is that not many people have been moving out of Pennsylvania in this decade—there has been a lot less domestic outflow there than there has been from the coastal metropolises (like the San Francisco Bay Area), where there has been massive immigrant inflow, along with massive domestic outflow. What Obama is showing us here is not sensitivity to the deprivations of people in Pennsylvania—which he, as a native of multiracial Hawaii and a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, knows little about first hand—but a form of liberal snobbery, which, as I have written, has been part of American politics for more than 40 years. This attitude goes back even farther to Adlai Stevenson's quip that if a majority of thinking people supported him, that wouldn't be enough because "I need a majority." The new face from Illinois, articulate and attractive to many people, fell short of a majority. Will that be the fate of Obama, articulate and attractive to many people but condescendingly dismissive of many of the voters he needs to win? Let's see.