If you haven't viewed the "attack" ad that is generating so much anger against Sen. Hillary Clinton, at least in the ivory tower offices of the New York Times and among many of Sen. Barack Obama's supporters, you owe it to yourself to watch it.
If you're an Obama supporter, you'll most likely view it as an attack ad or, as an Obama supporter told me, "a subtle attack ad." If you're a Clinton supporter, you won't. In the wake of Clinton's Pennsylvania victory, voters' reactions to the ad raise questions not only about this race but about the future of the Democratic Party. Can the party hold together a crucial coalition of working-class, white "Reagan Democrats" and African-Americans? Democrats need both segments to win back the White House.
The controversial campaign spot is called the "kitchen" ad because it quotes Harry Truman's famous advice on what to do if one "can't stand the heat." Prior to the Pennsylvania primary, Obama's constituency consisted primarily of liberal, educated, upscale whites, young and first-time voters, and African-Americans. Clinton's base included union members, less educated and lower-income voters, and rural (read: white) voters.
Pennsylvania dramatized Obama's loss of support among better-educated voters, Catholics, and low-income whites. Perhaps this is due to his refusal to disown his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his scaldingly anti-American remarks. Perhaps it is due to the senator's inept classifications regarding gun-owning and religious voters while speaking to San Franciscans.
In either event, CBS News exit polls of Pennsylvania Democrats brandish Clinton's gains in these categories. She won 69 percent of self-identified Catholics (who were 37 percent of primary voters,) 51 percent of postgraduate studies voters (who made up 26 percent of Pennsylvania primary
voters), and 53 percent of voters with some college education or associate degrees. Each of these figures reflects important inroads for Clinton and sets up general election obstacles for Obama should he win the Democratic nomination. Obama is still the clear party favorite according to the delegate count. But his Pennsylvania loss is all the more stunning when one tallies the lavish sums he spent on advertising. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Obama outspent Clinton $3 to $1 on TV ads in the amount of some $20 millions. That, if nothing else, should have guaranteed him a win, not a 10-point loss. In Pennsylvania, as in Ohio and Texas, Obama's "outraise and outspend" tactics resulted in a big state loss that could prove fatal if repeated in a general election.
Clinton has thrown inexcusable and completely befuddling obstacles in her own path, such as her fabrication of landing under fire in Bosnia and her indirect put-down of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by belittling his civil rights accomplishments compared with those of President Lyndon Johnson.
That said, elite, ivory tower institutions such as the New York Times editorial board do more to divide the Democratic electorate along gender, race, and class lines than anything the candidates could do themselves:
"The Pennsylvania campaign, which produced yet another inconclusive result on Tuesday, was even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it."
I say this as a Brooklyn-born, Manhattan-raised Ivy Leaguer: The Times editorial board is overreacting and burnishing its reputation as an institution out of touch with the thinking of mainstream, moderate, middle Americans. Worse yet, it is fanning flames that might otherwise be long-forgotten ashes by the general election.
The one thing both Democrats have going for them—which not even the Times can undo—is the weakness of the Republican opposition. Sen. John McCain's huge economic blunder this week may well cost him the support of fiscal conservatives, the same crowd looking to him to represent their interests in the White House. By proposing huge tax cuts without regard to their impact on an already out-of-control deficit, McCain did more to rip apart the fragile Republican coalition than anything either Obama or Clinton could do. McCain is now the Democratic coalition's biggest booster.
The American electorate is faced with a trio running for office whose ability to self-destruct would be the envy of kamikaze pilots.