Hillary "Shot-and-a-Beer" Clinton has given us the perfect illustration of what's so insane about American politics: the philosophical dictum that could be summed up (with apologies to Descartes) as "I seem, therefore I am."
Clinton spent the weekend bashing Barack Obama for not seeming to be enough of a regular guy-not for any actual deficit of regular-guyness, mind you, but for giving the impression that such a deficit might exist.
The former first lady, whose family has made $109 million since her husband left the White House, then made a show of demonstrating that she's actually just a regular gal. The point wasn't really to convince anyone that she, Bill and Chelsea commute between their two lavish mansions in a five-year-old Ford F-150 pickup with a gun rack and a "Jesus Rocks!" bumper sticker. Her aim was to prove to the nation-or, at least, to Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana-that she's better at feigning regularness than Obama.
This is how we pick a president?
This whole sideshow began when Obama committed what she portrayed as the apparently unforgivable sin of trying to describe the resentment felt by some working-class Americans, venturing that "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."
This seemed "elitist ... and, frankly, patronizing," Clinton charged. Never mind whether it actually was elitist, patronizing or, for that matter, inaccurate. No, the eagle-eyed Clinton took dead aim at a different target: the impression Obama might have given.
As if to show her opponent how it ought to be done, Clinton-a longtime advocate of gun-control laws-spoke of her lifelong reverence for the Second Amendment. "You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl," she said. "Some people have continued to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture, it's part of a way of life."
Clinton also made a point of telling audiences about her deep religious faith. The topper-or the chaser-came at Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge in Crown Point, Ind., where Clinton threw back a shot of Crown Royal whiskey and followed it with a beer.
Clinton bristled, though, when a reporter had the temerity to ask her when she last attended church or fired a gun. "That is not a relevant question for this debate," she said. "We can answer that some other time. This is about what people feel is being said about them. I went to church on Easter. I mean, so?"
Um, so the issue isn't whether you regularly sit in a church pew or even occasionally go hunting, but whether you can manage to seem like the sort of person who does? I think I need a shot and a beer too. Just give me whatever the lady's drinking.
Obama has apologized for using the word bitter to describe some frustrated voters, but managed to have a bit of fun with Clinton's new persona. "She's talking like she's Annie Oakley," he said, adding that she gives the impression of spending every Sunday in a duck blind.
But I think Clinton is serious at some level. She argued Sunday night that Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry lost because they seemed elitist-not because they actually were, but because they seemed to be. In reality, she said, they were "good men, and men of faith." So is Obama, she allowed. But they didn't measure up in the seeming department.
As you've guessed, I have a couple of problems with Clinton's seeming-is-being theory of campaigning for the nation's highest elective office. First, given the urgency and complexity of the problems the next president will face, who's going to think it's a good idea to elect Joe or Josephine Sixpack? I realize that Gore was deemed inferior to George W. Bush on the "Who would you rather have a near beer with?" question, but the 2000 election took place at a time of peace and prosperity. Oh, and Gore did win the popular vote.
Here's my other problem: Clinton's argument assumes that regular is a synonym for unsophisticated-that to communicate with voters who have not attained a certain income or educational level, a candidate has to put on an elaborate disguise and speak in words of one syllable.
So tell me: Who's being patronizing?
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group