What Barack Obama was trying to say.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 14 2008 6:47 PM

Big Snob or Little Snob?

Trying to figure out what Barack Obama was trying to say.

(Continued from Page 1)

Can we rehabilitate him? First up, guns and religion. The charge against Obama is that he thinks of gun owners and the religious as mindless slobs who have no legitimate basis for their views and come to them merely out of economic hardship. His salvation on this point may come in a 2004 conversation with Charlie Rose, in which he also talks about blue-collar workers who hunt and attend church. On the show, Obama gave little hint of condescension. He affirmed that people go to church and hunt for their own sake. Such activities, he said, became more central to their lives by lack of employment opportunity, but it wasn't bitter lack of employment that drove them to those pursuits. He goes on to say that Republicans, by appealing to people in their emotional comfort zones of church and the gun club, have made better inroads with these voters. Democrats, by appearing to condescend about the motives behind these activities, don't appear to credit the legitimate reasons people have for doing them, compounding the party's electoral problem.

This clip suggests that Obama isn't a thoroughgoing snob about guns and religion, which is the claim being made in the wake of his San Francisco remarks. In fact, he's making the anti-snob case. It's plausible then that Obama got caught shorthanding his more complex view about electoral behavior rather than let slip a hidden truth about his view of the way small-town people live their lives. This distinction, if you believe it, condemns him more as a bad pundit than as a potential president who will be incapable of forming policy for people who make less than $50,000 a year.

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Now comes the harder task of trying to help Obama out of the ditch of the back half of his sentence, about small-town people who cling to "antipathy" that amounts to xenophobia and racism. These hardly fit into the category of good things to embrace, as Obama's spin would have us believe. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, though, what Obama seems to have been trying to do is catalog the many ways politicians can play on voters made vulnerable by their economic conditions. They can play on the voters' heartfelt passions (guns and god) or they can appeal to their darker side (xenophobia and racism). Viewed this way, Obama is potentially rescued from a conflation that mixes racism with religion and makes more plausible his explanation that he was trying to talk about favorable aspects of small-town life.

That's the best I can do to unpack what Obama was trying to say. My defense would probably get me laughed out of the bar in Altoona, Pa., which is the problem Obama has trying to explain himself. (In the end, Obama will probably do better trying to remind voters of Hillary's flaws than defending his own remarks.)

Ultimately, in trying to explain what Obama was thinking, I run out of string. He wasn't expressing a sweeping view of the human behavior of small-town people. He was making a tactical point about how politicians appeal to voters at election time, but that tactical point about electoral behavior still relies on an unflattering view of small-town voters. No matter what helping hand you extend him, Obama still claimed that voters have been hoodwinked on Election Day, and no one wants to be told that in the past they've been duped into voting for the wrong person.

Obama supporters should know just how offensive it is to hear this line of argument. They've been on the receiving end of it for months, as Hillary Clinton and her allies have described them as deluded cult members who are marching behind the inexperienced senator because he gives a pretty speech. Obama supporters don't like it when their well-thought-out reasons for following Obama are dismissed as emotional, irrational, and thoughtless. They should understand, then, why people who don't support Obama—or in the past haven't voted for Democrats—don't like being told that they've drunk some kind of crazy Kool-Aid.

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