In the aftermath of the controversy that erupted over Senator Obama’s remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser, members of the Republican establishment – and the Clinton campaign – have seen a possible opening. In the previous two election cycles, the GOP saw much of their success grow out of defining Al Gore and John Kerry as out-of-touch elitists, incapable of empathizing with average Americans. Gore assisted in the characterization, often presenting himself as a condescending lecturer; Kerry, too, was happy to oblige on a number of occasions, either by referring to Lambeau Field as Lambert Field, by ordering Swiss cheese on a Philly Cheesteak, or by windsurfing in his downtime.
As a result, when Senator Obama used a poor word choice in describing small town voters, the GOP and thed Clinton campaign shook the dust from the old Gore/Kerry playbook and began their assault. Hillary Clinton was quick to suggest that Obama had been divisive and elitist. She even chose to criticize Obama by comparing him to Kerry and Gore, an ill-advised mistake given Gore’s position as the most prominent of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates.
McCain and the RNC also ramped up their attacks, giving the appearance that they expect to brand Obama with the same iron that bested his predecessors.
But there are substantial differences between Obama’s candidacy and those of Gore and Kerry, differences that the GOP may ignore at their peril.
First, and perhaps most importantly, Gore and Kerry both secured the nomination because it was, at least in some sense, their turn. Gore had served dutifully as vice president and heir-apparent, while Kerry was the last of his entering Senate class yet to attempt a presidential bid. Their ascension to the nomination was as much the product of patience and timing as it was the result of political skill.
Obama’s rise could not have been more different. A relatively unknown Senator with only two years in Washington, Barack Obama has become the near-presumptive nominee of his party by sheer will and persuasion. His success has been the direct result of connecting with voters, of getting in touch with their concerns and aspirations. Were he actually out of touch, his candidacy would have ended soon after Iowa, in the chorus of withdrawals that included Biden, Richardson, and Dodd.
The “elitist” line of attack worked with Gore and Kerry because they found it confounding, never fully able to forcefully respond. But unlike Gore and Kerry, Obama has shown himself to be exceptionally skilled at attacking from a defensive position. Each time he has been confronted with a potential controversy, he has used the opportunity to swing at his opponent while further validating the rationale for his candidacy. Early in the campaign, Hillary Clinton attacked Obama for what she described as an irresponsible and naÃ¯ve willingness to meet with America’s enemies. Rather than cower – as Gore or Kerry might have been expected to – Obama responded in kind, aggressively criticizing Clinton for her flawed way of thinking and for her support of the Iraq War. When Reverend Wright’s comments presented a would-be firestorm, Obama used the opportunity to speak about race in America in a way that no public figure has since Martin Luther King, Jr. A recent Los Angeles Times poll actually suggests that Obama had a net positive gain as a result of the Wright controversy. Twenty four percent of Pennsylvanians said “his handling of the issue made them think more highly of him,” while only fifteen percent thought less.
When the “bitterness” controversy arose, it provided Obama with yet another opportunity to gain advantage on defense, one he exercised with impressive swiftness and precision. Having mocked the utter silliness of the Clinton campaign’s response to his comments, Obama cast Clinton as the out of touch candidate, both in her perception of those suffering economic hardship and in her understanding of the new kind of politics Democrats expect.
Unlike Gore and Kerry, when attacked, Obama can respond.
There is, of course, another reason why attacking Obama as an out-of-touch elitist would be a misguided strategy for the GOP. Obama knows what it is like to be black in America. He knows what it means to be poor in America. He knows what it means to struggle without succeeding, to be underestimated or written off. Al Gore may have been raised in a Washington hotel by a Tennessee Senator. John Kerry may have spent his formative years in elite private schools and living richly in France. But Barack Obama was raised by a single mother in a third world country, and has spent his adulthood on the Southside of Chicago. He and his predecessors are simply nothing alike.
Having little with which to come after Obama, there are many, including Karl Rove, who believe they have found hope’s Achilles’ heel. But recycling the same Gore/Kerry playbook would be an enormous mistake, one that clearly underestimates the quality of the opposition. In this political climate, with this many Americans frustrated and hungry for change, John McCain can ill-afford a debate about who’s more out of touch.