Wayne O’Leary

Pennsylvania Polka

Identity politics is alive and well in the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton’s nine-point victory in the Keystone State primary displayed the hardy resilience of the “old politics.” The kitchen-sink strategy (throwing everything but) was refined into the Tonya Harding strategy: politically kneecapping the opposition by ceaseless personal attacks that played into lingering regional prejudices.

What the Clinton forces succeeded in doing in Pennsylvania was to turn the primary campaign into an exercise in tribal warfare; it was “our tribe” (white, religious, rural, working class) against “their tribe” (black, secular, urban, “elitist”)—a kind of red-state, blue-state divide. Cultural issues once more trumped economic issues, showing how excruciatingly hard it is to build a populist-progressive coalition across social lines. Obama did his part to undermine his own cause with the exceedingly dumb remark about economically downtrodden working-class Pennsylvanians channeling their frustrations into guns, God and anti-trade, anti-immigrant sentiment.

Substantively, the worst part of the Illinois senator’s “bitter” comments, which were, it must be stressed, twisted and distorted beyond their intended meaning, was not that they put the onus on guns and religion, but that they implied anti-free-trade impulses were self-defeating. For the second consecutive primary (Ohio being the first), Obama failed to effectively bond with workers victimized by trade policies and failed to capitalize on Hillary Clinton’s Achilles heel concerning that issue. How the Clinton team has gotten away with portraying Hillary as the anti-NAFTA candidate, considering her and her husbands’ long history of supporting free trade, is one of Campaign 2008’s enduring mysteries.

Part of the answer lies with the sheer gall and chutzpah of the Clinton camp: Keep repeating the lie until you’re called on it, and if you have the nerve to tell a big enough lie, the more likely that you’ll pull it off. Obama has not called the Clinton bluff on trade, perhaps because of his Austan Goolsbee problem—Goolsbee is the economic advisor who suggested to Canadian officials that Obama was not seriously anti-NAFTA—and perhaps because he’s been something of a quasi-free trader himself. In the meantime, it’s been brought to light that Hillary, labor’s friend, had a top campaign strategist (Mark Penn) working simultaneously as a paid free-trade lobbyist on behalf of the government of Colombia and a supporting superdelegate (former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard) doing his best Austan Goolsbee impression in Ottawa.

Maybe one reason why blue-collar workers drifted to Clinton in Pennsylvania and voted their cultural values was a failure to see any difference between the candidates on globalization and trade. Obama is right; working-class voters are cynical and bitter about their economic plight, but the “hope” candidate gave them precious little confidence that he would alter their circumstances. If no one will address the Rust Belt’s miseries, why shouldn’t it just use the franchise to express its anger and tribal affiliations and vote against the outsider, the guy who seems different, the guy who uses hifalutin words that only the college crowd understands.

The Clintons, culpable themselves, nevertheless manipulated this attitude to a fare-thee-well. Thus, we saw the gun-toting Hillary, the hard-drinking Hillary, the church-going Hillary, the plain-folks-like-you Hillary (with $109 million, of course). Without a sufficiently hard-edged economic message, Obama couldn’t counter effectively; he couldn’t change the conversation or re-write the narrative.

And then there’s racism, the American original sin that can’t be fully exorcized. The Clintons and the media, it’s been said, have managed to make Obama appear progressively darker as the campaign has gone along. The post-racial candidate who wants to transcend color has increasingly been pigeonholed as the representative of Black America. There was Bill Clinton, on the eve of the Pennsylvania vote, astoundingly accusing Obama of a personal and deliberate use of race against him and his wife, thereby giving white voters a subtle cue to hit back on their behalf by voting their skin complexion. Many apparently did. If exit polls are to be believed, race was an important consideration for 13% of primary participants, and three-quarters of them (10%) voted for Clinton—enough to seal her victory. A similar theme played out in Ohio two months ago.

This vestigial racism among the white, ethnic working class, many of whose members view black Americans as economic competitors for lower-rung jobs, was notable in Pennsylvania for its matter-of-fact character. Some were perfectly willing to express their prejudices in words such as: “I won’t vote for a black candidate; that’s just the way I am.” It was as if they were saying: “I don’t like cold weather; that’s just the way I am.” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell sheepishly acknowledged that a number of his constituents would probably vote against Obama in that spirit. Someone called this the banality of racism; it’s a distinctly minority mindset among whites, and undoubtedly among working-class whites as well, but its existence is enough to turn a closely contested election.

If racism weren’t enough in Pennsylvania, there was also the phenomenon of reverse ageism. In this primary, in the second oldest state demographically, the dead hand of the past was clearly resting on the body politic. An older generation that has run the Democratic Party for years is not yet ready to leave the stage, and Clinton is its candidate. The over-50 age cohort (of which I am an admitted member) either can’t adapt to Obama’s change message or views his “new politics” as a threat for reasons that remain muddled. It’s an actuarial problem that will only be solved by time, and not in 2008.

As for Obama himself, he remains a work in progress, showing flashes of becoming another FDR or JFK, but having not yet fully reached his stride. Luckily for him, there are other, more representative states beyond Pennsylvania, and he’s facing an opponent who, though relentless and resourceful, has plateaued and is unlikely to find another battlefield as perfectly attuned to her brand of slash-and-burn politics. Obama, if he can put that listless performance in the trashy ABC News debate at Philadelphia behind him, should only get better.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2008

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