How 'Bittergate' Hurts Obama

For now Barack Obama is still on track. The early indication from the Gallup Poll daily numbers (confirmed by a couple of other polls) is that despite four days of punishing coverage, "Bittergate" has not derailed Obama's campaign. It may even have the perverse effect of lowering expectations so that a single-digit loss to Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania will look less bad than the same result without the gaffe. A week from now the conventional wisdom might be, "He only lost by seven! Not bad after all he's been through."

Don't get me wrong. I think Obama's comments at a San Francisco fund-raiser—where he said that "bitter" working-class voters "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them"—was a dumb choice of words and a damaging mistake. The polls could be wrong and the gaffe could end up harming him. Hillary, placing all of her chips on the incident, is already running ads in Pennsylvania telling voters that Obama looks down on them. Even if he does respectably there, Hillary will likely make this a big issue in the remaining primaries, almost all of which happen to be in largely rural, progun states such as Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia. (Article continued below...)

And of course, if Obama's the nominee we'll hear about the San Francisco remarks from the Republicans all fall. The GOP is out of synch with the American public on most major issues, so it's inevitable that the party would run against Obama's character. Clinton and John McCain, the $100 million twins (the estimated net worth of each), will try to paint Obama as an elitist, and it could work.

But my gut tells me that most people won't judge Obama based on one comment, and the only way the charge will stick is if it reflects some core truth. So does it? Is Obama a snob?

We know that he grew up without a father or much money and only recently paid off his student loans. We know that he connects well with people from all walks of life on the trail without seeming condescending. We know there are no stories in his background of his acting in a high-handed or, as Hillary describes it, "patronizing" way toward other people. (The same cannot be said, alas, about some accounts from her own contemporaries, all the way up to her 1992 slight of women who "stay at home baking cookies.") In fact, conservatives on the Harvard Law Review recall with fondness how respectfully Obama treated them, in sharp contrast with other liberals at the law school.

But my take on this question isn't important. So I asked someone whose judgment on it is. Roy Romer is a former governor of Colorado and a former chairman of the Democratic Party. He is also an uncommitted superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention.

"Look at his life," Romer told me. "He graduated at the top from Harvard, then went to the South Side of Chicago to work with the poor. That's about as unelite as you can be."

"People will look at the totality of the candidate, and he'll do fine."

But how about all those gun owners and churchgoers who may now desert the Democrats, just as they, according to Hillary at last Sunday's Compassion Forum, deserted elitists Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004?

Well, it turns out that working-class Americans have not left the Democratic Party, except in the South, where practically everyone except the black community has turned Republican. In the north, as Princeton political scientist Larry M. Bartels establishes in an important new book, "Unequal Democracy," working-class voters have actually been trending Democratic in recent elections, which helps explain why longtime bellwether states like Illinois and Pennsylvania have been more reliably blue. According to Bartels, more affluent voters are the ones who have been swayed by social issues like abortion and guns. Working-class voters, he writes, are still motivated by economics.

By contrast, Obama was awkwardly echoing the analysis of Thomas Frank in his 2004 best seller "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Frank argued that working-class Kansans were essentially being fooled by conservative appeals on social issues into voting against their economic self-interest. If it turns out that Bartels is right and Frank is wrong, then Obama will have ironically been saved by the falsity of his own cultural argument.

It may help that he has spoken often in the past of his respect for the family tradition of hunting (which he compared to fathers playing baseball with their kids). And of course, Obama is a more convincing advocate of religious faith than McCain, who refused the invitation to the Compassion Forum and all other efforts to get him to discuss his relationship, if any, with God.

It may be that the impression of elitism was not actually the most damaging part of Obama's statement, and that the long-term problem is not so much the word "cling" (as in small-town folks clinging to guns and religion) as the word "bitter."

For Obama, the idea of a bitter American public is at odds with his message of hope. He can describe people as frustrated or angry, but if he stops tapping into the idealism and patriotism of his audiences (as when they memorably chanted "USA! USA!" at some rallies), he won't make it.

Have you ever noticed how on TV news, when, say, a family is killed by a gunman, the survivor goes before the cameras and says something to the effect of "I'm very sad but I'm not bitter"? Whatever their straits, Americans are conditioned to deny any bitterness. So when Obama on the first day the story broke doubled down by repeating that many Americans were bitter, he compounded his mistake.

Bill Clinton's political instincts have been a little rusty lately, to put it mildly, but he was on target on Sunday when he recounted how a man came up to him before an appearance in a small town and said, "We're not bitter here; we're proud."

Turning Obama into a snob will be tough for even the most skillful GOP attack dogs. But turning him into a candidate who doesn't appreciate the basic goodness and decency of the American people is doable. It's there that Obama must take care to connect to what the president he calls "my man" Lincoln referred to as "the better angels of our nature." A few more "USA! USA!" chants would help too.