Posted on April 22, 2008

Obama’s “Bittergate”: more than just a slip of the tongue

Let’s face it: we (meaning not just we the people, but also the Chattering Classes whom we listen to) don’t cut politicians much slack when it comes to misspeaking. One “unacceptable” remark, gesture, or even raising of one’s voice can bring to naught a hundred eloquent speeches. Howard Dean’s screams and George Allen’s “macaca” slur immediately come to mind. Both were blown vastly out of proportion to their true significance (if they had any), and ended up sinking two otherwise promising candidates’ campaigns.

Michelle Obama’s statement, uttered back in February, that she was only now, “for the first time in [her] adult lifetime, … really proud of [her] country” touched off a firestorm of indignation, but ultimately didn’t wreck her husband’s campaign—arguably because, after all, it wasn’t the candidate, but only his wife, who had made such a gaffe. And as her subsequent remarks showed, she didn’t really mean that she had never experienced pride in her country until her husband’s campaign picked up steam. She’d simply misspoken.

Should “Bittergate”—the controversy surrounding Senator Obama’s remarks at a private fundraising event in San Francisco—be viewed in the same light? Should we just accept the fact that words sometimes come out wrong even when you’re a presidential candidate, and move on?

I say no.

Why? Because Obama’s remarks, unfortunately, sound much more like something he meant than something he didn’t.

Obama was talking about working-class voters in small towns. (People who, incidentally, used to make up the core of the Democratic constituency. More on this below.) For the record, here’s a direct quote:

They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Does that sound like an awkward, simplistic remark that somebody would blurt out without thinking? Hardly. Rather, it’s a clear, almost elegantly concise summary of why liberal elites hold average working Americans (especially if they live in small towns, and especially if they’re white) in such contempt—and also, by inference, why such people have fled the Democratic Party, which was once their political home, over the last few decades.

Unlike the Volvo-driving, sushi-munching, penthouse-dwelling Democrats among whom Obama feels so at home, the people in Flyover Country take the Second Amendment seriously. Most have a deep faith in the God of their fathers. They understand that their work provides their only source of sustenance, and that it becomes massively devalued when the county is awash in cheap labor from the Third World. And they know that if American stores like Wal-Mart can stock their shelves with products produced by slave laborers in China for pennies, there’s no reason for anyone to run a factory in the United States.

Yes, these people are “bitter.” Speaking this fact wasn’t what got Obama into hot water. Rather, it was the palpable contempt that dripped from his every word in describing this bitterness.

In Obama’s and his pampered friends’ world, exercising Constitutional rights and having faith in God become “clinging” to guns and religion. Wanting to defend one’s job (and one’s neighborhood and one’s culture) within the borders of one’s own country against aliens who would take them away become bigotry (“antipathy to people who aren’t like [oneself]” and “anti-immigrant sentiment”). Demanding a return to the days when there was a sense of mutual loyalty between American employers and American workers becomes “anti-trade sentiment.” And all the above become just boorish ways of interpreting realities one is too stupid to deal with, or even understand: a way to “explain” one’s “frustrations.”

One has to hand it to Obama: that’s quite a lot of ignorance of working America (at best) or disdain for it (at worst) that Obama managed to pack into one sentence.

If Obama and Co. want to win back the Average Joes who once formed the bedrock of their party’s support, they’re going to have to do more than just watch their words. They’re going to have to stop trying to manipulate and hoodwink, and start seeking to understand and respect, all those “bitter” people who, to use Obama’s words, “aren’t like them[selves].”

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