E.J.Dionne: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, working hard to elect John McCain





[E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. ]

The Democratic presidential candidates are doing a splendid job helping John McCain get to the White House.

Barack Obama violated two elementary rules of political campaigning. A candidate should never play the role of a political scientist or sociologist analyzing a key electoral swing group from afar, and should never dissect the motivations of less privileged people when talking to a group of privileged people....

"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," Obama said at a San Francisco fundraiser on April 6. "And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not."

There followed the explosive paragraph: "And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Much of his answer suggests an Obama who empathizes with working-class voters who feel abandoned. Having lost hope that government could do much for them economically, they vote on the basis of "values" issues.

This is an old chestnut of political analysis. It can be traced back to "The Real Majority," a 1970 book by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg--neither of them card-carrying liberals. They argued that when working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of economics, they backed Democrats; when they voted on "the social issue," meaning crime, race and values, they tilted Republican.

Scammon and Wattenberg's analysis was aimed at helping Democrats, but Richard Nixon rode it to victory in 1972. Republicans have been following this script ever since.

But then there are those two Obama words that shook the campaign: "cling" and "bitter." Really dumb word choice. The second paragraph, far less empathetic than the first, makes Obama sound like the author of an undergraduate paper, not a candidate for president....


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