He was in San Francisco last week explaining at a closed-door fundraiser how the rubes of small-town America often do foolish, misguided things when the economy turns bad.
“It’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigration sentiment or anti-trade sentiment,” the golden-tongued orator from Illinois said.
I still can’t figure out what that sentence is supposed to mean, but then I am not as sophisticated as Obama. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, not far from where Obama now lives, but politicians didn’t talk like that when I was growing up.
Politicians there dealt with all kinds of people — rich and poor, black and white, sophisticated and unsophisticated — and the pols found out that almost everybody wanted the same thing: They wanted to know what was in it for them.
If they didn’t have a job, they wanted to hear how the pol was going to get them a job. If they were having trouble making their house payments, they wanted to know how the pol was going to help them keep their house. If they had a problem, they wanted a solution.
What they didn’t want was to be derided for not having a sufficiently nuanced worldview.
Obama’s statement, which he now says he “mangled” but was not a “lie,” probably will not matter much in his getting the Democratic nomination. All the number crunchers say he has a virtual lock on the thing.
But if he does get to the general election, he is going to have to reach beyond his comfort zone.
Ever since Al Gore lost the presidency in 2000, the Democratic Party has been trying to devise a “rural” strategy that would bridge the gap between its candidates, who have often been seen as cultural elitists, and the residents of small-town and rural America, especially in the South.
Howard Dean, now chairman of the Democratic Party, said on Fox News in 2003 that if, during the 2004 presidential campaign, Democrats would stick to issues like “jobs, health care and education” and not get trapped into talking about things like “guns, God, gays, abortion and all this controversial stuff that we’re not going to come to an agreement on,” then his party would have a better chance of winning votes in the South.
Which was a little easier said than done. As it turned out, John Kerry did not carry a single Southern state in 2004. Obama thinks he can carry Southern states this year by dramatically increasing black voter registration and turnout, but he could probably use a few white votes, too.
And in both the North and the South, Obama could use the votes of people who “cling to their guns” and who may make up as many as half of all voters.
Both times Bill Clinton ran for president, he made gun control a mainstream, public safety issue. Standing on stages crowded with police officers, Clinton told voters there was no need for “cop killer” bullets or assault weapons. He also told hunters that he was not interested in taking their guns away.
“You don’t need an Uzi to go deer hunting,” Clinton would say. “And you don’t need an AK-47 to go skeet shooting. And I never saw a deer in a Kevlar vest.”
Clinton was able to cross the cultural divide. Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 told gun owners exactly what Bill Clinton had told them, but many gun owners did not believe them. To some, Gore and Kerry were creatures of Hollywood money and Washington politics. They could not cross the divide.
The National Rifle Association is very good at exploiting this. Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the NRA, blasted Obama on ABC News this week.
“American gun ownes have for years understood the elitist concept of special privileges for the few, the same few who look down their nose at the people who respect basic American traditions like flying the flag, going to church, owning a gun and believing in the Bill of Rights,” LaPierre said. “Obama’s statement is a crack in the door that gives all of us a peek as to how the ‘special’ people look at the rest of us. Americans can read that code.”
Though I don’t agree with LaPierre, his statement is politically clever. Like the pols I grew up with, LaPierre knows what people want: They want to feel as if somebody is looking out for them, not down at them.
And if Obama wants to get from his house to the White House, he ought to keep that in mind.