My post yesterday called out the degree of violence, particularly misogynistic violence, present in the current Democratic contest. However, the characterization of Democrats who would not support the Democratic nominee in the general as "infantile" has stuck with me. I'm dropping the snark for a post and really looking at what blind spots are demonstrated through this stance. My point is not to criticize a particular blogger (richly though he may deserve it), but to get into the center of some profound self-deceptions going on with people all over the Left over the nature of political legitimacy.
Declaring people unwilling to support the nominee "infantile" is a very poor way of looking at the emerging dynamic of the race, though it would have been an appropriate chastisement prior to any of the caucuses or primaries. At that time, both Edwards and Obama publically refused to commit to supporting Hillary (which equates to telling their supporters not to vote for her) should she be the nominee. That was the point at which a slap should have been administered and not to HRC. I do not remember the Blogger Boyz complaining about this language when it was assumed the person being penalized by such threats was Hillary.
The fundamental problem with categorically labeling Hillary voters as infantile is that it takes as true the elite pundit meme that she and her supporters are illegitimate participants in the process, the equivalent of Ralph Nader and his adherents. This initial error is further compounded by assuming that those who will refuse to vote for Obama are simply a small group of delusional HRC supporters, though the vehemence with which the prospect of voter defections is being met belies that public stance. There are two increasingly overlapping groups of voters who are likely to defect from the Democratic column in November, and they illustrate two ways in which Obama has lost political legitimacy.
Taking up the first issue, the presumption of the punditocracy that we all know that a Hillary victory cannot be for real, has ironically enough become the foundation of Obama’s lack of legitimacy, but has expanded to include the Democratic Party itself. This crisis brewed for some time, but took form when HRC was not permitted a level playing field in the campaign. The refusal to grant her equal footing may have begun with the MSM, which has always hated her, but they were soon joined by progressive blogs and the other campaigns, producing a phalanx of elite opinion trying to delegitimize her at every step. The signature moment was the Drexel debate where Obama and Edwards took up Russert’s invitation to batter her in front of the cameras and then played the victims afterwards by claiming that Hillary was playing a “gender card”.
To those several million people who support Hillary or who at least regarded her favorably, this pointed attack upon her as a person as well as a candidate, coupled with the relatively gentle treatment granted the other candidates, had the effect of solidifying a great deal of our support. To declare her unworthy of participating, a monster who would “do anything to win,” was seen for what it was, straightforward demonization of a perfectly acceptable candidate, one with a deep well of support and an enviable record of public service. We simply don’t accept the elite framing of our candidate.
When A-list bloggers begin to lecture HRC supporters about having to grow up and not be infantile, they just dig themselves into a deeper hole, because they trivialize and mock our considered support for her. The arguments they offer up about her – duplicitous, hateful, cold, power-mad, disliked, criminal – are straight out of the Rightwing sewer, do little save undermine the validity of their own stances.
Then, there was the comment from Obama that he knew all the Hillary supporters would vote for him, but he didn’t think she could get his. What incredible offensiveness, to claim that he could take my vote for granted. It dismissed the fact that, were he to become the nominee, he would then have to ask for the support of those who had not selected him the first time around, and thus put in a position of providing reasons to vote for him to the people he casually dismissed.
Thus, among HRC supporters, the effect of this particular campaign has been to erode the legitimacy not of our candidate but of Obama. As polling shows, his presumption that he automatically inherited her supporters has been proved untrue, in great part because he assumed that no one could really support that “monster”.
The second issue, which is interwoven with the first and is, in my opinion, a far greater problem for the party as such, has to do with the treatment of rank and file Democrats who vote for Hillary. As shown in exit polls, these voters are the bulk of the Democrats who voted (as opposed to all who participate), people for whom being a Democrat is a part of their personal as well as political identity. Falling support for Obama among this group is a more recent phenomenon, one that he might have been reversing in mid-February but which is trending down with every poll. There is some anger here over the treatment of Hillary, but even more it is rejection of Obama himself as a candidate due to his own actions and statements. At a slightly deeper level, it is an upsurge of the latent resentment and distrust between the so-called “tracks” in the party – beer and wine – the shorthand way of identifying the significant social and economic and increasingly gender stratification of the Democratic Party.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post (can’t remember which one), the sour note that Obama has struck with this constituency is the sore spot of anti-Americanism, the constant attack point of Republicans on the Democrats, and the way in which Obama simply is not able to credibly counter that threat. It is also the case after the Wright disaster that these Democrats don’t believe that Obama is patriotic enough. It wasn’t Wright’s racism but his cursing of the nation that has gone down sideways. On top of this is the perception that he does not care much for “the little guy” (the NAFTA waffling, the lack of serious legislative achievements), and the foundation for his own legitimacy becomes narrow and unstable.
There is a deep irony here. In Obama’s set piece speeches he excels at tapping into the leftwing version of the patriotic narrative, about equality, justice and opportunity. This was the power of his keynote speech in 2004. But the promise of that speech has not been present in the candidate. The spousal unit sums it up in a single sentence – he ran too soon. He did not give himself the time to distance himself from the Chicago mess (political, financial, religious) and put some substantive national level public service under his belt. In some ways, the Chicago power base has insulated Obama from the conundrums of running a Democratic campaign in a centrist nation.
This is a lesson both Bill and Hillary Clinton have learned. Big Dog got his ass handed to him his first reelection bid in Arkansas because he came across as too elite and alien to the population, too eager to push his agenda and not inclined to listen to what people told him. In a word, arrogance. You don’t run as a member of the liberal elite in middle America. You cannot be perceived as having contempt for the people whose votes you need. Hillary faced this in upstate New York, plus even more baggage – carpetbagger, outsider, Billary monster, favorite punching bag of the right – and some real Republican opponents. She did it the hard way, by demonstrating her work for the voters of the state, won the first election, then busted her chops for her constituents, and had a blow-out reelection. She certainly has legitimacy in New York.
Back to the race. The rank and file Democrats who have favorable attitudes towards the Clintons and also for McCain look at Obama and see someone running a negative campaign and who appears to disdain the nation. The mix of pocketbook issues with a straightforward and direct love of country is not favoring him with these voters. The more they hear, the less they are inclined to support.
Then we get into the recent events of the campaign. Florida and Michigan are the contests where actual legitimacy for the candidates and thus the eventual nominee will be founded. A 48 state strategy is not viable if those two are not part of the 48. In these places, Hillary voters are being written off, dismissed as illegitimate voices in the process. The insistence on only one aspect of the rules, the penalty, while ignoring the full set of rules that could be used to manage the situation is eroding Obama’s claims to legitimacy because people don’t care about arcane party rules. They want their votes to count. The acts by Obama to prevent a revote have done nothing to increase his standing with ordinary voters, let alone strong Clinton partisans. This does not make him attractive to people who will have to switch their allegiance should Hillary not be the nominee. Conversely, her insistence on having votes counted will earn her greater legitimacy as well as benefit her with extra delegates.
In Ohio and Texas, the lack of respect for the opposition combined with a lack of legislative track record has cost Obama the victories he needed to shore up his legitimacy as a credible general election candidate and to counterbalance the problems raised by not counting Florida and Michigan. The sneer about Ohio voters who failed to vote for him as “Archie Bunkers” was a slur that every solid Democrat understands. He was calling those voters stupid racist bigots. Then we got the Wright controversy, which has simply added more fuel to the perception of Obama as an elitist liberal who does not honor his country or respect his countrymen.
Obama has rudely lost the good regard of Democrats like me. The hysteria and hate of the elite punditocracy who have declared me and my candidate to be illegitimate in an attempt to bully her supporters, while giving him a free ride, cannot be rewarded. The Democratic Party is choosing to declare Hillary voters to be expendable (can’t count your vote if it would change the outcome of the race) and of lesser worth than Obama supporters. And all of this is being viewed with increasing disgust by a growing number of Democratic voters.
The candidate with the legitimacy problem in this campaign is Obama, not Hillary.