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. What 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 his 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 party 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 live, 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 me 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.
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