Friday, April 18, 2008

Barack Hussein Dukakis

I have always felt that the Democratic Party represents the better angels of our nature, and therefore I have always voted Democratic, at least on the state and national level. (I did vote for a Republican for mayor of Sedona once but it was a nonpartisan race and I didn’t hold it against him.)

The hardest vote I ever had to cast was in 1988, when Michael Dukakis was running against the first George Bush. By election day, Dukakis had proven himself to be an inept candidate, aloof and out of touch. Some of you may recall his advice to farmers in Iowa to grow more Belgian endive. Wha
t sealed the deal with the public was his answer to CNN reporter Bernard Shaw’s question in the last debate, in which Shaw asked, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis’s emotionless, analytical reply -- a rehash of his views on capital punishment -- missed a golden opportunity to connect with the public on an emotional level. Instead, he appeared to confirm insinuations by the GOP that he was an “ice man,” too out of touch with the average American to be trusted to lead the country.

Barack Obama has a lot more going for him than Michael Dukakis, both as a
candidate of intellectual breadth and depth and as a warm, witty, and emotional human being. One of his gifts, up to now, has been his ability to connect to voters. And then he went to Marin County, California, and gave a speech. Marin County, for those who don’t know, is just north of San Francisco, and is, if possible to imagine, filled with even more wealthy liberals than San Francisco. It does not surprise me that Obama was attending a fundraiser there.

I had a friend in college named John who hailed from Marin. His parents had a lovely home and were gracious people, even if one had to remove one's shoes at the door so as not to despoil the pristine white carpet. His father was a doctor, his mother a psychiatrist, and they played string quartets on the weekends -- no, not on the stereo, but in their living room, with instruments and two friends. John’s high school chums lived in a house I will never forget, perched on a hilltop in Sausalito with a commanding view of San Francisco, worth well more than a million dollars even in 1976. These people were well-tanned and drank an enormous amount of white wine on their stunning terrace. I recall going to Grace Slick’s house to meet more of John’s friends, walking down the stairs past gold records hanging on the wall.

Marin, to my eyes, was a wealthy, wondrous, and insulated world. But the experience of growing up there had led John to rebel; he became interested in h
is religious roots and studied to become a rabbi. Beyond that, he fell in love with New Mexico and wore cowboy hats and boots and blasted Country-Western music on the radio to the consternation of his parents. His hero was Kinky Friedman. Eventually John settled in Albuquerque. He was still a liberal and dedicated Democrat. But culturally, Lone Star beer in hand, he was somewhat the opposite of where he was raised.

And FYI, for those on distant shores -- and this includes New York and Los Angeles -- a lot more Americans can relate to John than to his parents.

Apparently Barack Obama may not be one of them. I was more than a little distressed when my party’s likely nominee went to Marin County recently and rolled this oratorical gutter ball:

"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Ouch. Dukakis-in-the-tank ouch. Dukakis failed the gut test. Obama is starting to require a little too much Pepto-Bismol for comfort.

It's not that Obama said people are bitter. We all understand that unemployment can send people into anger and despair. Nor does anyone argue that there will always be people who will take their frustrations out on others, however unfairly. The history of this country is filled, after all, with far too many examples of xenophobia and racism.

The problem is that Obama went one step further, ascribing people's passion for things that some Marin-ites might dismiss as "downmarket" -- such as guns and religion -- to a negative motive: bitterness about economic decline. The implication was, whether he meant it or not, that if their economic situation improves, residents of these towns would become less interested in guns and God and more tolerant of illegal immigrants. Perhaps this sort of armchair sociology appeals to a closed-door audience in Marin, but it is wrong on so many levels and betrays a lack of understanding of what makes this country tick.


One reason John and I could relate is that, for the most part, I grew up in small-town Arizona. Around actual cowboys. And Indians. And people who have guns. People who go to church. Like John, my experiences led me in somewhat the opposite direction from where I was raised. That's how I ended up in Santa Cruz, California, where John and I went to college.

But I've been to the rodeo as well as the opera. And I can tell you that most people do not have guns because they are bitter. They have guns because they like to hunt, or because they like to shoot bottles off fences like I did when I was a kid -- every boy I knew had a BB gun -- or because they view guns as a means of personal protection. They go to church, not mainly because they are upset about things -- though religion certainly is a means by which some people cope with the question of why bad things happen to good people, such as those who come down with leukemia. They go because it gives them comfort and structure and community and an answer to cosmic questions we all wonder about. They are not anti-immigrant because they are frustrated -- they are frustrated with illegal immigration, largely out of principle, because they believe other people should obey the laws just like they have to. This is called “fairness.” And when it comes to trade policies, many Americans think a goal of these policies should be to safeguard American jobs, rather than see them shipped overseas to the benefit of multinational corporations looking for cheap labor. Is this clinging to a sentiment out of frustration, or is it -- oh, I don't know -- common freaking sense? (For an excellent analysis of the full range of problems with Obama’s comments, read this at Politico.)

Obama’s remarks made me cringe because they remind me of the misunderstanding some people in my p
arty have of what it means to live in Flyover Country -- that is, the space between the two coasts. What Obama doesn’t get, apparently, and what he needs to get if he expects to be president, is that rural and/or red state voters are a lot more complex than he gives them credit for.

We are all products of our experiences, and one reason I give Obama a pass on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue is that I do not know in my heart what it means to be black in America. But I can see, given our history and the struggles for Civil Rights that I witnessed as a kid, where the bitterness of some African-Americans comes from.

Conversely, understanding towns like those I grew up in, or those in which people in rural Pennsylvania liv
e, is a bit out of Obama’s experience. The problem is that he is running for president and cannot win the election without the votes of at least some of those denizens of Possum Hollow.

All this may drive m
e to drink, as it has Hillary Clinton, who is now a good ol' girl who downs shots of whiskey and tells stories of her duck hunting days of yore. This is Clintonian political theater at its most entertaining, and Obama’s remarks may yet save her candidacy.

And the irony in all this is that if Obama is the nominee, Republicans -- the party of tax breaks for the wealthy, corporate welfare, and fringe social policies -- will again have the opportunity to portray the Democrats as the ones who are out of touch.

That's not reality, really. Which is why I vote Democratic. And perhaps this year, given the state of the economy and the endless war in Iraq, people will overlook some inappropriate comments. Even so,
I'll be clinging to prayer if Obama becomes the nominee.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

When the majority of the population pays no income taxes (many even get tax credits back thanks to those republicans) it is easy to see that the majority of the votes will come from this sector if only you promise to raise taxes on those who do pay and benefits for those who don't.

The democrats (nor anyone else) have not explained why the trade agreement with Colombia will be harmful to American jobs (the Colombians currently pay on tariffs on their exports), but i suspect that those who work for Caterpillar are actually worried about their jobs as they compete with the workers at komatsu in Japan.

These problems aer all very, very complex and I fear that populism is not going to save America!

Anonymous said...

meant to say "no" tariffs

Grateful said...

Although "bitter" and "cling" were poor choices of words, IMHO Obama was right on the mark. He did not say that people were not religious or did not like hunting before they became frustrated. Instead, what he said (albeit that bitter and cling are poor words) was that in times of trouble, people turn to those things in their lives which have given them comfort. The spin doctors have twisted it around - people who are not religious before they become bitter do not turn to religion as a result of bitterness. The spin doctors are wrong and Obama is right.

Anonymous said...

After B. Hussein Obama and his cronies are finished their work, your CLL may be the least of your problems.

David Arenson said...

Grateful, I think you are partly right. But I think he went beyond saying that people turn to things that have given them comfort. It's not like having a stressful day and eating too much ice cream as a means of coping.

Obama implied that people turn to negative things -- anti-immigrant sentiment, disparaging people who are "not like them," and into this he lumped religion and guns. What he may have been trying to say was that they vote on wedge issues -- gun rights, gay marriage, illegal immigration, affirmative action -- and that these issues become important because they have lost control of their economic situation and are frustrated with Washington.

I don't agree with that analysis, either, for a whole list of reasons, some of which are stated or implied in my post. The bottom line is I tend to believe people vote on those issues out of conviction; if these issues are important to them, it is not because of economic decline but because they feel threatened by social and cultural changes that began in the 1960s and 1970s. What you have in a lot of the Reagan Democrats are people who agree with Democratic economic policy but disagree with much of the social policy the party has embraced (and I would also add a "lack of sufficent patriotic feeling" in here, which is why symbols like the flag pin actually matter). When given the chance to vote primarily on economics -- as in 1992 -- they will vote Democratic. Whichever Dem gets the nomination will be wise to make the economy the number one issue.

Anonymous said...

As a Pennsylvanian, a Christian, and a Republican, I am not at all offended by Obama's statement. I believe that he simply mispoke and didn't intended it to mean what Hillary and the media have implied. Obama is the most inspiring politician that I have seen in my lifetime. It is possible that my vote may go to a Democrat if Obama is the candidate (certainly not if Hillary is nominated).

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't vote for Obama now because of the Rev. Wright debacle. But it's for far different reasons than expected. The things the news reported the Rev as saying don't bother me much, because most of it is true. But Obama referred to him as his "spiritual leader," and for my money anyone who thinks he needs such a thing has at least one mission-critical screw loose.

David Arenson said...

I got a chuckle out of the last comment. I also do not apply a religious litmus test to candidates; in fact, I tend to be put off by those who seem a little over the top when it comes to protesting their faith. That seems to be the fashion in politics these days, however. Obama is no worse than Clinton, though he has a more flashy pastor. McCain actually appears to be the least faith-based of the bunch.

Anonymous said...

I am a staunch Democrat as you are. When Barack Obama first ran for the Illinois Senate, I waited to see how well he did rather than jump on any bandwagon. He quickly became a leader in the Illinois Senate and managed to play a big role in steering things through the Illinois legislature. Now that he is gone, even with Democrats in charge in both houses, there is constant fighting and little gets done.

He was especially effective in getting health care legislation introduced and passed. The Illinois health care law is about as much as anyone could hope to accomplish at that time in this state. If he had pushed for a law like the one in Massachusetts he would never have got anything at all. I hope you look up the provisions of this law--a vast improvement over what we had before.

He was also successful in a number of areas that he sponsored such as ethics and finance reform and veterans care.

I am a cautious person when it comes to favoring a candidate, but I have watched Obama over the years here and in the U.S. Senate and have been very impressed. As a former professor of American history, I have a keen interest in politics and try to keep myself informed. I will vote for whomever is the Democratic candidate, but I personally believe that Obama will get more accomplished.

And as someone who protested before the Iraq war began and saw that Bush was leading us into a nightmare, I have to approve of the fact that Obama was against the war from the beginning, and that Hillary (from a state where it would not have been political suicide) voted to give Bush the authorization. I also do not like her support for the vote to name the Iran Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. And I fear that she is carrying a lot of baggage into the general election. I do agree that Barack put his foot into his mouth with his "small town" comments.

These are just some of my personal thoughts after having watched the career of Barack Obama. I am not on any committee or anything--just writing you a letter of my observations.

I think he is better equipped than you think he is.

David Arenson said...

Thanks for the analysis. As someone who lives in Illinois and has been more familiar with his career, I appreciate your point of view.

What I see of Obama I see from a distance, often filtered by the media (which is the lens many people see him through). My concern is electability above all else, and one thing Americans will need to do is get to know the man and feel comfortable with him before they give him their vote. It is that which concerns me, not that he may not be a fine person -- which I get the impression he probably is -- but that he may have vulnerabilities that could derail our party's chances of winning the election and ending the war, reforming health care, etc. So I think he needs to be careful about what he says, about some of the symbolism. If he's not, he could end up failing the "gut" test. Like it or not, McCain has already passed that test with most of the swing voters who will decide the election. Obama has to find a way to reach them.

It appears that, for the most part, the readers of this blog do not see Obama's "bitter" comments the same way that I do. If he does well in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, perhaps we'll find that they don't matter much to voters, either. If that's the case, then it is probably a good thing. In a year when the country is demanding change, perhaps he'll have a bit of a Teflon coating. Maybe his appeal to Americans to transcend the old way of doing things in politics has struck a chord that will carry him further than I have given him credit for. Something has obviously gotten him this far, and it isn't just the failings of the Clinton campaign.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that the country is demanding "change". We Americans want more of the same. Status Quo, stay-the-course. The new Democrat-controlled Congress is more concerned about whether Roger Clemens used steroids 10 years ago, instead of holding hearings on why we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, the moving target -justifications uttered by Rumsfeld, Cheney, etc., and how and when we plan to extract ourselves. I guess they forgot about the Watergate and Iran-contra hearings. Do they think that no one would watch?

At the same time, those newly elected towers of quivering jello in Congress are happily handing President Bush a blank check to continue funding this so-called "war", and joining with him to bail out Wall Street firms and to send us money from the treasury with instructions to buy more TV sets made in China.

Change? No way....

Anonymous said...

Oh, David. Do you REALLY think that business doesn't basically run BOTH political parties??? You don't know that business gives money to both parties, chooses both candidates, and has much more influence than you or I put together have?

Illegal immigration is the lifeblood of business, both big and small. More bodies mean more sales. Do you not see that? More illegals mean cheap labor. Do you not see that? A permanent underclass, fueled by open borders and stock market shenanigans, such as the bailout of Bear Sterns, do you not see the genius and cynicism in that?

If you do not see that neither party is concerned at all with the vast majority of this country, then I do truly feel sorry for you.

Hillary/Barak/McCain...all the same.

Anonymous said...

I am voting for Obama, if he is the Democratic nominee. I would never vote for Hilary. She is the worst of "political machines" and the reason our government wanted terms for President's in the first place. One thing no one has asked, but is a deal breaker for me is this.....Would you want Bill clinton to be our very first.."First Man." I would rather see anyone in office before I have to visualize that one. Hilary and Bill have long ceased to be human beings....they are so well trained in politics, that even politician's can't see they are political cyborg's. And what would "First Man Bill's" platform be? Reading? I just can't do it. Anyway, I do have black nephews and just listening to the stories from their side of the family of the total fear of even driving by a police officer is tragic. If white America does not understand somewhere in their soul why Obama's Reverend would make such a statement damning America, then I am in fear for our future. I fear we are not nor have been in the last 100 years, a Democracy that is for the people, by the people, of the people. Why would this statement scare White citizens? Do you think the tables will get turned and you will have to live the life that you have so conveniently look away from? Understanding our past and correcting the present to make a better future is the answer. ARGH....America the Brave. We best all don our Warrior paint. Of course, we do have the right to a revolution. Hmmmmm....I wonder if CNN or FOX would cover it?
jlou

David Arenson said...

Many interesting comments above.

As to corporate influence, since we live in a capitalist society, our politics is filled with it. The Democrats are not exempt from it. But it is a mistake to say the parties are the same, or that the same thing will happen if McCain or Obama/Clinton is elected. I submit to you the case of Bush v. Gore. Who has any doubt that things would be VASTLY different if my older relatives in Florida had been able to better navigate the butterfly ballot?

JLou, I think it would be very healthy for the body politic if either a black person or a woman became president. Nothing would be more wonderful than liberating ourselves from the yoke of racism that has existed in this country. But Marilyn reminds me that black men had the vote before women did, and that there is significant value as well to the symbolism of a woman running the country. Is Hillary the right one? That's a matter of personal preference. I think there's more good in her than we sometimes see. For me, Bill is not the issue, but I can understand why he is a factor for some. He's sort of like -- to use a metaphor from the wrong party -- the elephant in the room.

Anonymous said...

David, it is a racist/sexist comment to say it would be 'very healthy' for one race or gender to be president. What if I said it would be best for a white male to be president? Or a polygamist? Or a survivalist?

Let's put color and gender behind us. The fact that a black man and a woman can run this far with a political party is proof that we are ready to move beyond race and gender.

I'll vote for the person, not the color or gender. I do not make my choice based on this. It's sad that you would.

The fact that I like none of the candidates and will vote for none of them just shows you that my interests are not the same as big business/unions/government.

Anonymous said...

It would be lovely if we could actually put race and gender behind us ANON. But, as a woman, who sees her gender getting paid less for the same job a man has just shows you that we have not fixed this race/gender problem. And David, I also am often heard stating that black man got the vote before women. Tom's great grandmother marched for women to get the vote. I am sure that Hilary has some positive, wonderful things about her. I'm just tired of well oiled machines in our Country.
jlou

Anonymous said...

For the commentor who claims that women are underpaid, etc. etc.

Actually, when adjusted for time base, age and education, women make the same as males.

Women graduate college at a higher rate. They take more breaks from work than men. They quite their jobs earlier than men.

When you take all of this into account, the 'wage gap' disappears.

Here's proof:

"Young women in New York and several of the nation’s other largest cities who work full time have forged ahead of men in wages, according to an analysis of recent census data.

The shift has occurred in New York since 2000 and even earlier in Los Angeles, Dallas and a few other cities."