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.