Blogs > HNN > Clinton Should Be More Honest -- Obama Should Be Less

Apr 13, 2008 4:33 am

Clinton Should Be More Honest -- Obama Should Be Less

If Otto von Bismarck’s longstanding bon mot still holds that law-making is as messy as sausage-making, a carnivore’s codicil suggests that tough campaigns frequently make mincemeat out of candidates’ reputations. The great risk to Democrats as the Pennsylvania primary looms is that the process will diminish both their talented front-runners. Recently, both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama unintentionally highlighted fundamental paradoxes defining their respective campaigns -- and political identities. Hillary Clinton continued twisting and turning her First Lady legacy every which way, so it could either appear like all things to all people – or like one distorted mishmash alienating everybody. At the same time, Barack Obama committed a classic gaffe, wherein he said what he really believed, which of course required him to backtrack from it repeatedly and apologize profusely.

Hillary Clinton’s have-her-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to the 1990s plays out on two dimensions. She simultaneously exaggerates her influence within the Clinton administration and the greatness of the Clinton record. But what happens when a Clinton policy which she opposed sours? On Friday April 11, the New York Times ran a front page article about this Clinton conundrum regarding Bill Clinton’s 1996 controversial welfare reform.

Back in ‘96, to shore up his re-election effort, President Clinton signed a bill that fulfilled his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” The President had already vetoed welfare legislation the Republican-dominated Congress passed twice. Clinton’s pragmatic political guru Dick Morris insisted he sign this third bill, which forced welfare recipients to work and limited individuals’ benefits. This legislation deeply divided the already fractious Clinton White House. First Lady Hillary Clinton and her liberal allies fought the legislation intensely. Ultimately, Bill Clinton overcame his doubts to avoid giving the Republicans a club they could use to bash him.

During the next, relatively prosperous, ten years, the welfare reform appeared to be one of Bill Clinton’s great successes. Now, the Times reported, with the economy souring, criticism of the legislation is mounting. But what’s a former First Lady to do? If she repudiated her husband’s record by telling the truth about how much she hated the policy she risked reminding everyone about how politically impotent she had been. Instead, Hillary pulled the Clinton twist, claiming she supported the legislation for pragmatic reasons, tried to fix it as a Senator but the evil George W. Bush thwarted her efforts, and, besides, the legislation was pretty darned good anyway. Voters have every right to wonder if the policy was so good why it needed fixing, and how one of Hillary Clinton’s great internal defeats became one of Billary’s shared triumphs.

Voters should be equally vexed with Barack Obama who, in a private fundraiser on April 6, revealed the Ivy League elitism lurking behind his “Yes We Can” populism. Showing an unhealthy ability to alienate the “Reagan Democrats” and swing voters Democrats desperately need to recapture the White House, Obama speculated that rural voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” due to their bitterness over their economic situation. In one pithy comment, Obama insulted gun owners, church-goers, opponents of illegal immigration, and, for good measure, suggested that economic frustrations clouded the little people’s good judgment.

The comment was a pretty apt summary of Thomas Frank’s popular analysis of Republican success, “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” In that 2004 book, Frank captured the frustrations of a generation of Democrats who could not understand how so many people could be so stupid as to abandon the noble Democrats for the benighted Republicans. The only possible explanation, Frank suggested, was what Marx would have called “false consciousness,” that millions of voters in the heartland, distracted by the “culture wars” voted against their best economic interests. This analysis resonated among the Democratic activists, and Ivy League thinkers who form the backbone of the Democratic party – and represent Obama’s core constituency.

The problem is that, for some crazy reason, American voters, even the lower class ones, don’t like being told they are stupid. This dismissive approach is particularly problematic coming from a well-educated newcomer promising to heal America’s wounds – and gearing up to face the former war hero John McCain in November.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are no less elitist than Barack Obama, but years in Arkansas taught them to hide it better. Barack Obama is no less inconsistent than Hillary Clinton on welfare reform, but his experience as a community organizer in Chicago allows him to obscure it better. With less than two weeks to go before the Pennsylvania showdown, both candidates are going to campaign aggressively. Yet, both in promoting themselves and in knocking down their opponent, they have to be thinking about winning in early November as well as in late April. To do that, it seems, Hillary Clinton may need to tell a bit more of the truth – and Barack Obama may need to tell a bit less of it.

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/4/2008

It is strange indeed how the corporate media (CMSM) plays political favorites. Whether sexist in its endlessly talking about Hillary's appearance or racist in the ways it attempts to show Obama as a sneering elitist. While their elitist boy McCain makes huge errors in the area of internationalism he claims to be an expert in. What liberal press? One of the many myths promoted and supported constantly by the right-wing press that controls 90% or more of all airways and print media in this country. No wonder the average person who if they are interested at all in any news tends to get it from television and either local only or Fox and CNN. Two right-wing sources.

I find the idea that one has to lie to get votes is both absurd and obscene in its implications of the run-of-the-mill American citizen. If so we are truly lost.

Dennis Slough - 4/20/2008

Somewhere I saw a headline noting a poll that found small town voters accepting Obama's statement even if they didn't agree with all of it. Though I can't find the story now search engines did find many with headlines similar to "No Bitter Bounce" [for Hillary.]

I think you're wrong and someday people will be studying and writing extensively about this very idea.

It's pretty easy to say no one likes to be called stupid. Seems self-evident. But, is it true? The polls might already be indicating otherwise and my anecdotal evidence among friends and family is that "Reagan Democrats" are ready to be held accountable. They're especially ready if it's by the right person, someone who is genuine and skillful and has good intentions.

Thanks to Bush, the man they enabled, many of them will take the news from almost anyone, perhaps because it is less stupid to face and accept fact.

They've been had. For a generation culturally conservative working-class Americans mostly from small towns in the south and midwest have been led by the GOP into an us-versus-them wilderness to the point where they're now severely isolated from virtually the entire rest of the world. I think they're tired of painting themselves into a smaller and smaller corner and desperately want to find common ground, even with Ivy Leaguers.

The era of you have to be like me down to the hunting and bowling and country drawl and SUV and beverage is over. They've been asked too many times to sacrifice principle (eg. actual war hero vs. dodger-- and there are so many other examples) on the basis of this superficial divide.

Was it economic frustration? Maybe not entirely, Krugman aptly points out the good heartland economy during Clinton's years. But, the lingering insecurity for Reagan Democrats during this time compared with the post-war era before 1970 makes it seem like much of the country is going backward even after a boom decade and particularly when the boom ends too abruptly. Therefore I think Obama was mostly right and most people already accept half his argument-- economic frustration and bitterness. The god, guns, and xenophobia half is disputed but my gut tells me that will eventually hold up as well.

The Reagan coalition is dead.

Robert Smith - 4/17/2008

"The only possible explanation, Frank suggested, was what Marx would have called “false consciousness,” that millions of voters in the heartland, distracted by the “culture wars” voted against their best economic interests."

So here's the question: Is this analysis wrong?

Obama is so well-spoken that whenever he makes a gaffe people tend to pick nits about the terms he uses.

During the same week John McCain confused Iran and Iraq several times, and repeatedly claimed that Al Qaeda was supported by Iran. Isn't this a bigger gaffe?

The notion that Obama is somehow "elitist" and that McCain, whose father and grandfather were both admirals, is not "elitist" is pretty absurd. All of the top three candidates are rich and well-educated.

Bryan Mullinax - 4/16/2008

Ah yes, the eternal conundrum. Of course Obama won't be elected if he tells people what he really thinks and wants to do. No true liberal can be elected on a century or more of failure.

However, he is surprised at the reaction because up till now he has been protected by the media who will "explain" his remarks and just ignore the stuff they don't want to report.

Its really funny because the liberal press that has given him a free pass for his whole political career has led him to believe that either a) everybody thinks like he does anyway or b) he can get away with saying anything. Witness his surprise at being called on for sitting through 18 years of racist hate from the pulpit of his church.