The problem is not, as Big Tent Democrat would have it, that Obama supporters are making stupid arguments that are hurting their candidate. This is the deliberate strategy of his campaign since at least New Hampshire, not something some "surrogate" thought up on his own. This fish is rotting from the head.
Why won't the campaign drop something this incendiary and divisive, particularly as it appears to be costing him votes? Probably because everyone from the boss on down really, truly believes it. Obama's statements about working class whites was in response to a question about why couldn't he get their votes. His answer was they are bitter - superstitious, violent, racist and xenophobic - and so they fail to vote for me. It is their fault, their failing, their lack that is costing me votes. It can't be his fault that he's losing, because all the Very Serious People agree that Obama simply must be President.
That a candidate makes dumb claims about their success (or lack thereof) on the campaign trail should be of exactly zero surprise to anyone. Politics is a breeding ground for both egos and idiocy. What is surprising is the degree to which the party leadership, the Left punditocracy and significant numbers of wine track liberals fully agree with this diagnosis. It appears the fish is larger than this single candidate's campaign, though I believe it took this campaign to expose the rot. This is part of my larger analysis of "The South" in the liberal imagination. My focus here is less on Obama's campaign than on how the campaign is is applying pressure to the fault lines running through the Party.
I have written up my analysis of the fault lines themselves in my post "Bunker Mentality," but here are a few key paragraphs to get me going on the current argument:
I think we are seeing the North/South split among party power brokers, but not so much physical geography as much as “North” and “South” as modes of political thought, clans of political actors, and styles of political strategy. As articulated by outstanding liberal thinkers like Paul Krugman, Mark Schmitt and Rick Perlstein, the major parties have gone through a tectonic realignment starting with FDR and due almost entirely to a reversal in their stances about race and their pursuit of white Southern votes. The Republicans took advantage of the racist exodus from the Democrats and incorporated it almost without modification, whereas the Democrats have declared that mentality as “not us” and engaged in a simple but absolutely necessary rejection of that legacy. However, what the Democrats have yet to do is to articulate the ways and conditions under which we will say “us” and include the South. This is the third act of our multi-generational political drama. Act one was from FDR to LBJ. Act two was from LBJ to WJC. How will the Democrats handle their Southern problem?So, the party leadership perceives the intersecting location of race (white) and class (lunch-bucket) as the point of failure for the political left, believing that all dangerous, divisive elements of the party are quarantined there. The party need only worry about keeping the infectious agents within a cordon sanitaire, inside the party to provide votes but not actually allowed to lay claim to any power as they would return the party to the pre-Civil Rights era. The shock of Democratic defections to Reagan served to cement this opinion in the 80s and nothing since then has been able to change it.
The other part of this internal battle (and it is no mistake that we tend to deal with these two issues in tandem), is the tension between the “elite” and the “lunch-bucket” Democratic partisans. The terminology is misleading, of course, and engages in some unhelpful stereotypes. ... Perhaps we can call these broad and often over-lapping groups within the party the Truman contingent and the Stevenson contingent. Perhaps we can call it class. As much as North and South look askance at each other, these constituents of the Democratic coalition do not always see eye to eye. ...
In the minds of the liberal elite, the problems and failures of the progressive agenda could be laid at the feet of bigoted whites, the “Archie Bunkers” of the North, and the “Bubbas” of the South. And there lies the strategic fault line of the Democratic Party, the willingness of a significant portion of the party, and I’m willing to wager the majority of the party power brokers, to see the electoral problem as how to minimize the damage of the Bunkers. The nadir of this strategy was under Reagan with the rise of the Reagan Democrat, when Democratic Party leaders simply could not speak to this socio-economic constituency, and believed the worst of it. Nor were they entirely wrong. The Republicans rewarded this constituency for acting out their worst, most selfish and hateful impulses in culture wars and through Darwinist economic policies. At the same time, the lack of powerful Southerners in the Democratic Party leadership helped to preserve the Stevenson contingent’s dominance of the party. There may have been people like Sam Nunn or Al Gore, but you did not see any LBJ.
The Obama campaign calls upon and reinforces this not terribly hidden opinion of the party elites, though I think he would not have been able to be so blatant in his operations had he not been running against Hillary Clinton. He would have had to be sotto voce in a contest with Edwards, for example, to ensure the MSM did not get their fangs into it. Given that the Clintons have already been declared by the elite of both parties to be reviled members of Bubba Nation, their appeal to that constituency could easily be dismissed as illegitimate and irrelevant, no more than getting in the mud with their own kind. The effect of this campaign is to bring into direct confrontation the two strands of politics in the party, and demand that the party choose between them. The deep irony, or perhaps it is tragedy, is that Obama's original political appeal was that he could somehow remove the deep division within the party and shift the Truman contingent more firmly to the left.
Why couldn't he? First off, the Truman contingent is already to the left of the rest of the party when it comes to economic issues, and they are looking for a candidate who will aggressively defend their economic interests. Second, the Truman contingent is actually very loyal to the party. Finally, the Truman contingent's cultural values are every bit as complex, convoluted and multi-faceted as that of the Stevensonian wing, and they are open to persuasion about adhering more to some parts of their cultural inheritance than to others. They are not open to condescension and shaming. What self-respecting adult would be?
In short, Obama, taken here as an exemplar of the liberal elite, is simple wrong in his estimation of the core Democratic constituency. They did not want what he was offering because they did not see themselves as the ones who needed to be changed, and they have consistently given their votes to the person who has focused on their explicit economic needs and their desire to be safe in an unsettled world while being respectful of them as people.
The political problem, the way in which a fault line is turning into a fissure, is in Obama's response to not getting these votes. When Hillary did not win their votes, as in Wisconsin, she did not turn around and revile them as "Archie Bunkers" or as "bitter". I have never heard a word from her or her campaign calling AA voters racists for giving their votes to Obama. She simply does not denigrate the voters. The Obama campaign response to losing New Hampshire was to instantly accuse working class residents of being closet racists and this toxic and grievously insulting charge continues to this day. The more his campaign trumpets this accusation, the greater the resistance to his campaign, which then pumps up its rhetoric, which offends more people, etc.
Where is this going to go? First off, should Obama be the nominee, he can kiss the general election goodbye. I'm sorry, BTD, but you are wrong about Obama's electability. You simply do not understand the voting habits of the Midwest and border states. Next, the Democratic Party leadership itself is going to be paying for its whole-hearted embrace of reductionist class politics. Some voters will defect to the Republicans, though I think that is going to be limited. Those with true sympathies for the Right have already moved over. Instead, I think you see a significant section of the working class simply turn away from participation, depressing turn out and costing the party electoral success. They will stay away until the party offers them candidates who talk to their material interests instead of to the leadership's fantasy of being modern day Solons.
There is also the case that the demographics of the left are changing far more rapidly than the elite narrative, which appears to be permanently stuck in 1980. College educated voters are increasingly female because college graduates are increasingly female. Running campaigns that piss on strong women candidates, even those of us who should be Obama swooners, ain't going to hack it. Conversely, this means a larger portion of the male population will not be college educated, increasing the ranks of the dreaded Bunkers and Bubbas. The party needs to figure out how to make itself relevant to the interests of both these groups. In all classes, the population is increasingly Latino and Asian, decreasing both black and white percentages. Speaking about racism as though there are only two colors will not be relevant to these groups.
The problem in this election is the tunnel vision of the party elite who insist on demonizing wide swaths of Democratic Party voters based on biases that simply do not reflect demographic or political reality. There will be a long-term political price to pay for insisting that working class voters don't have concrete interests, but are only voting out of bigotry. Obama will pay his part of that price soon, whether in the primaries or in the general. The party will be paying for years.