All this razzmatazz over Barack Obama's remarks about "bitter" voters is revealing just how Hillary Clinton is playing for time. The strategy seems to be for Hillary to tap into talk radio, grasping at soundbites like straws, trying to mobilize right-wing culture warriors in a rear-guard action to stop Obama. We saw how Republican voters, taking a hint from Rush Limbaugh, crossed party lines to help her in Ohio's open primary. Now for Pennsylvania, we have a Republican-framed attack on an aspect of Obama's liberal persona. Add this to the three-in-the-morning TV spot and ask yourself, where is this leading?
This is a good moment to consider what's different about the Obama campaign, and why despite all his soothing talk and efforts to reconcile the red and the blue, he seems to pose a threat to the status quo of American politics - so much so that Hillary Clinton is leaping to play the elitist card. Obama is representing what Howard Dean called "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." If nominated, he would be the first candidate in living memory whose strategy centers on broadening the electorate, on bringing a flood of new voters and non-voters into the electoral process. Progressives have been urging Democratic candidates to do that for decades, as voting rates among Americans remained pathetic compared to other democracies. Obama is doing it, and it's shaking things up.
It's not just young people responding to Obama's appeal. He is connecting to the aspirations of many Americans, including some of the ones he's accused of patronizing. These are people who had, for some sensible reasons, failed to see the sense in voting, but who would nevertheless like to associate "hope" and "change" with government, and who are part of that large majority that wants this country to correct its course - away from aggressive war, police-state surveillance, corporate pillaging of public wealth, and a cynical political discourse that puts soundbites under a microscope, but remains allergic to glaring, inconvenient truths.
Even if Obama doesn't truly stand for all that, his campaign narrative does, and that's saying something. Since Michael Dukakis chose competence over ideology in 1988 (as soon as I heard him draw that distinction in his convention speech, I knew he would lose), Democratic presidential contenders have all gone soft on democracy. Bill Clinton's politics of triangulation advanced his own personal interests ahead of those of his party, or of the people who elected him. This was clear to me long before that satisfying November night when we danced to Fleetwood Mac, and it's clear to anyone who was moved by Jerry Brown's quixotic 1992 campaign. The priorities of the Clinton I administration - budget tightening, passing NAFTA, and welfare reform - confirmed its commitment to triangulating against the aspirations of the majority.
As Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry both chose the narrow, enough-voters-in-enough-states game plan that gave us the red-and-blue map. Worse, they both watered down their political identities and offered the electorate a compromised version of themselves. We now know that if Gore 2.0 had been a candidate in 2000, he would have won in a walk. But as a candidate, Gore conveyed no strong advocacy for political reforms, on climate change or any other issue. "An Inconvenient Truth," in addition to its edutainment value, is also the soft-focus biopic of a candidate we never got to support. Similarly, Kerry's campaign sold a phony story about who the candidate was. What mattered about Kerry's life wasn't so much that he served in Vietnam, but that he came back and organized veterans who'd turned against the war. He should have worn that biography proudly; in ducking from it, he gave the Swift Boaters their opening to checkmate him.
In Obama, we finally have a candidate who is not afraid of the pro-democracy hints on his resume, like time spent as a community organizer, but actually claims them as strengths. That's part of why his campaign has caused such excitement, and why the vultures are buzzing overhead to take him down, like they took down Howard Dean four years ago. The controversies over Jeremiah Wright's soundbites, and now this "bitter" one, demonstrate the trap they're setting for him. But if it's not acceptable to mention that some Americans feel cynical and hopeless about government being on their side, then I'd like to hear Hillary Clinton and John McCain answer the question: why do you think so many Americans don't vote?
No doubt, Obama certainly has some qualities that fit the right-wing caricature, a very broad one, of the liberal elitist. Furthermore, there are some loopholes in his campaign story (he hasn't gotten all those millions from small donors alone!) and some inconsistencies in his policy positions. But as others have said, it's not so much the candidate himself, but the movement his candidacy has fostered, that holds so much potential for improving our political culture. By inspiring a multitude of citizens to exercise their forgotten franchise - and banking on their support to win - the Obama campaign holds aloft the promise of a progressive presidency buoyed by muscular support from, um, we the people.
Despite his major corporate backing, I find something savvy in Obama's fundraising pitch about "owning a piece of this campaign." He's selling stock - and, by inference, suggesting some accountability to his shareholders.
If Obama endures this tacky juncture in the election cycle, secures a Clinton concession, and advances to a general election against McCain, I expect we will see the virtues of his pro-democracy positioning. He will continue to be attacked as elitist, naive and unseasoned; as a liberal duplicitously posing as bipartisan, an angry Black Panther posing as post-racial. No matter how much his rhetoric embraces patriotism (more than I'm comfortable with myself), as long as he's unhappy with our current foreign policy, he will be accused of hating America. He, and we, can handle these attacks.
I hope that in the general election, he will advance the discussion into areas that have not been fully discussed in the primary cycle: in particular, issues of presidential power, checks and balances, and civil liberties. McCain's apparent reversal on torture could prove as damaging as Clinton's vote to authorize the attack on Iraq. Giving a full airing to the excesses of Bush and Cheney - torture, wiretapping and surveillance, the Military Commissions Act, habeas corpus, and flouting international law over and over again - will frame the general-election debate in a way that puts the Republicans on the defensive, reminds the newly-broadened electorate of the nation's core values, and puts down policy markers we badly need.
Roger K. Smith is a free-lance writer and writing teacher in Ithaca, New York.