Obama and (Bill) Clinton spark controversies

In yet another sign that there is very little left to discuss in the primaries, two more controversies were blown out of proportion today. As is the norm in such cases, the controversies were particularly quick to take hold because they conform to preconceptions people already have (fairly or unfairly) about the candidates.

First, Barack Obama and blue-collar voters. The issue was sparked by an article published this morning by Mayhill Fowler in the Huffington Post that included the transcript (and subsequently the audio) of comments made by Obama at a fundraiser in San Fransisco. Referring to people living in "small towns in Pennsylvania" where "the jobs have been gone for 25 years," Obama added: "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." (Do check the transcript for the full context).

The quote quickly made its way around the web and on cable news, with condemning statements from rival campaigns. Clinton charged that, "Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them" and a McCain aide was even more brutal, "It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking." By the end of the day, Obama was forced to address the controversy, explaining at a rally tonight that he meant that downscale voters vote on social issues rather than economic issues because politicians don't deliver on economic promises (a Thomas Frank-type argument).

The outrage feigned by McCain, Clinton and cable news is clearly being blown out of proportion; but it does reveal that the old debates over whether liberals are condescending towards working-class white continue. And the ease with which the controversy took hold confirms that the GOP will make the elitism charge a central part of its anti-Obama general election campaign. Obama is often criticized for relying too much on the votes of the upper-middle class, as downscale voters are among the most reliable constituencies of Hillary Clinton's; fairly or unfairly, Obama is described as having a "blue-collar problem" and that perception made it much easier for this story to spread today.

Two good news pieces for Obama, finally, out of this controversy: (1) The GOP's ad does not write itself: There is no video of Obama's comments, and the audio's quality is too poor to be used in an ad. (2) The Obama campaign responded very quickly, getting the candidate himself to address the issue a few hours after the story broke, as Marc Ambinder recaps. The campaign had been criticized for its slow response of the firestorm surrounding Michelle Obama's pride comment and the videos surfacing of Reverend Wright -- and this "toughness" component is definitely something superdelegates are watching for.

Also today, Bill Clinton got in trouble for comments he made surrounding his wife's now infamous 1996 plane landing in Bosnia. Campaigning in Indiana, the former President revisited that episode that Hillary's campaign has done its best to put behind her: "here was a lot of fulminating because Hillary, one time late at night when she was exhausted, misstated — and immediately apologized for it — what happened to her in Bosnia in 1995. Did y’all see all that? Oh, they blew it up." The problem, of course, is that very little in this statement is actually true. Clinton repeated her tale of landing under sniper fire more than once, there seems to be no instance of her telling it at night and she did not immediately apologize.

This prompted a whole new round of discussion about the Bosnia trip, how aware Hillary was that her story was false and how much of a liability Bill is for the campaign. Given how old the story now is and that Clinton's poll decline last week was partly attributed to this issue getting so much press, I'm not convinced Bill's words merited that much attention at this point. But here again, the controversy fits preexisting narratives as the media has been loving to portray Bill as trouble for the campaign and as Hillary faces accusations of being too cold and calculating -- criticism that the Bosnia story played right into.

There is no question that all these narratives have been hurting the Clinton campaign tremendously in these primaries, and the last thing Hillary needed right now was for her husband to make life more complicated for her with this clear unforced error. (The candidate reportedly called the former President to ask him to not talk about Bosnia anymore.)


  • Wow, Taniel,you swallowed that one whole! The comment by Bill was purposeful. The effect was to highlight the truthfulness topic so Barack would again be scrutinized for his blatant lying. I guess he got the better of you too. While you're out doing his work on Obama, every Clinton supporter in the country is laughing at how petty her remark was compared to Obama's lie about Rezko. Watch how this HELPS Hillary and HURTS Barack. I guess you didn't figure out how Barack helped himself by bringing up Wright again either. You need to ascertain motive before falling victim to these tricks, or you'll become an unwitting accomplice.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 07:47  

  • As for the "bitter" remark,nice good cop/bad cop by the Democrats to stick it to McCain's core. Only damage done to Democrats is for Barack to appeal to a few Clinton supporters by taking a swipe at the gun-toting bible thumpers. Hmm,just how has that republican drickle down economics helped small towns in Pa and Ind.? McCain took the bait. That's the triangulation I was talking about.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 08:31  

  • There seems to be a constant search by both parties to find the next Dean scream or macaca moment with which to beat the oppositon over the head. Most,but not all, of these mistatements are taken out of any context and serve only to feed the cable news channels insatiable need for fresh news stories. Unfortunatly, this situation favours Clinton's focus grouped and programed drivel and not the nuanced statements of Obama or McCain's from the hip straight talk.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 10:57  

  • I always love it when people blame any gaffe as "taken out of context."

    Certain statements are offensive even if you include the entire 30-minute speech.

    "God Damn America" is still hugely offensive to lots of people even if you attach 20-years worth of sermon DVDs to "put it in context".

    Meanwhile, those Obamabots keep pounding Clinton's head over her sniper fire comment and refuse to take responsibility for the jillions of things that Barack/Michelle/Wright/Farakhansays.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 11:07  

  • No different than the Clintonbots keep pounding on any little nit they can find to somehow try and change the course of the primary which at this point would take a parting of the Red Sea to get the nomination for Clinton and those who think she's entitled to her coronation - are those ClintonCoronationbots?

    By Blogger KELL, At 12 April, 2008 11:32  

  • I think that Obamas' comments lowerd his already small chances of winning Pennsylvania primary to pratically zero. I also think that is very unlikely the he can get within single digits either. Working class whites are going to strongly come back to Clinton and will do in numbers which will allow her to get a 10%-15% margin of victory. Obama will also weaken against McCain in PA in the General election in polls that come out around the time of this gaffe. However, his quick response and lack of clear audio of his remakrs mean that in the long term I don't think he will be affected. This gaffee will make it easier for Clinton to make it to June, but it's way to weak for Clinton to take the nomination. The GOP I expect will use this along with Wright to try to gain white working class dems and independents, but Obama can counter by showing how the Bush tax cuts didn't benefit working class citizens (indeed the absolute richest Americans still generally support the GOP and they get their benefits more from the party than poorer GOPs in my opinon).

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 12 April, 2008 11:40  

  • And what exactly do we owe the Clintons? His election in 1992 was fortunate that Ross Perot was in the race. Due to Hillary and Bill, we lost the House for the first time in 40+ years and the Senate. Bill got us Don't Ask, Don't Tell and signed the DOMA. The economy? Like we always say, it's hardly the Commander in Chief that is controlling that, it was prosperous times. That lovely scandel and sexcapade with Monica, well that just basically costed Al Gore the presidency in 2000.

    Granted I like Bill Clinton and I think he did good things in office, but I see no grand reason why Hillary "deserves" this nomination because of her husband's administration and/or success. I think she's a good Senator and does well for New York as its Junior Senator.

    And I don't take offense to Obamabots at all, because that sounds like a machine, and we need a well oiled machine if we are going to beat McCain in November, not the past Clinton administration which in my view helped cost the Democrats Congress in the 1990s and Al Gore the presidency in 2000.

    I fully support Obama. If Clinton wins the nomination fairly, I'd support her 100% as well. To those who do otherwise, you are selling out the Democratic Party and you are a DINO. The same goes to primary Hillary supporters who say "I'll vote for McCain" if Obama wins. I love Eggs Benedict, but the Benedict Arnolds need to think about loyalty to the party.

    By Blogger KELL, At 12 April, 2008 11:41  

  • Neither of them is "owed" anything and regardless of who wins, some will cry foul. Is it fair that all states don't run closed primaries? No. Is it fair that caucuses count as much as legitimate primaries? No. That's why we have superdelegates to protect the will of the party. If the nominee is Barack without majority support of Democrats, McCain will reap the rewards of a party that defied the will of it's members. When the party opposes it's majority,the party leadership are the traitors, not the rank and file. A loyal Democrat should support the will of the people that make up the party, not the renegade leadership. Since polling shows consistently that Hillary leads among Democrats, Barack's nomination will cause a mutiny. Obama and his supporters have repeatedly alienated Democrats in a hostile takeover that if successful will surely give the general to McCain. He needs to win over Democrats to win in Nov. Support for Obama is support for McCain.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 12:49  

  • Anon: 12;49 Exactly which polls show Hillary leads among Democrates? I seem to have missed them.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 12:57  

  • Anonymous 12 April, 2008 12:49 - Your sense of what's fair has a curious way of tracking with the Clinton line. There were no objections from the Clintons prior to Iowa, when the deck seemed stacked in their favor. They were prepared to reap the benefits of any victory - didn't matter if it was a caucus, a closed primary, electronic voting or stacked ballot boxes. Now of course they're crying in their Yuengling about how unrepresentative the system is. Quel dommage.....

    The rest of your post is nonsense. First, as 12:57 points out, there's no data to show she's leading. She's won some states, and he's won some states. I guess VA and MO don't count in your world.

    More to the point, the party loses consistently when it relies solely on Demo votes in the general. This election will be lost unless we can claw back the independents and some Repubs. If the Super Ds have any function at all, it's to make sure that the party doesn't get shoved off the cliff in the general - not to blindly follow the popular vote, and I think the majority of them conclude that Hillary's negatives are so high and so embedded that she can't help much at that end. Their primary goal right now is to make sure that the zealots on both sides do minimal damage to the eventual nominee.

    By Anonymous zoot, At 12 April, 2008 13:11  

  • Since polling shows consistently that Hillary leads among Democrats, Barack's nomination will cause a mutiny. Obama and his supporters have repeatedly alienated Democrats in a hostile takeover that if successful will surely give the general to McCain. He needs to win over Democrats to win in Nov. Support for Obama is support for McCain.

    I don't get that reasoning at all. Even if Clinton leads Obama among Demcorats, that wouldn't make her the stronger candidate in November. Most Democrats will come out and vote Democratic; it's the independents who will decide the race.

    Sure, some really antagonized Clinton supporters may stay home. But when faced with the prospect of an unending commitment in Iraq, extending tax cuts for the wealthy, and no real health care plan, won't most Democrats turn out regardless of who is the nominee? I'd say if one wants to win in November, it's the national and state-by-state results against McCain that are important, not the Clinton-Obama-among-Democrats-only numbers.

    Furthermore, I think it's hard to paint Obama as the product of "renegade leadership." The party decided on a process. States implemented it. Both candidates planned accordingly and had a fair shot. One can argue that the real catastrophe would be if a candidate won the pledged delegate contest and lost the nomination. The perception that the result was determined by party insiders would be a real turnoff to democratic-leaning independents whose support is needed in the general election. From a USA Today article last month: "Most at risk is Democratic support from independents. Nearly two-thirds of those voters call that result unfair, and one-third say they would then vote for the Republican or stay home in November."

    Perhaps that group consists mostly of Obama supporters anyway, but it's a factor that can't be dismissed.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 12 April, 2008 13:20  

  • The last poll I read about stated that only 56% of Democrats would vote for Obama if he was the nominee. I read that here. Independants may be the key here, but the vast majority would vote for Hillary,while only a small majority of Democrats would vote for Obama. Obama is a sure loser. He's simply unelectable. Only a fool would conclude otherwise. Those of us that vote on issues will still cast for him if he wins but that won't elect him president. I'd love to see him in the White House, but reality takes precedence over idealism. He doesn't have the support.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 16:01  

  • Of course Obama has support Anon 16:01 - the polls show him leading Clinton amongst Democrats. Also that 56% is one poll and was of Clinton supporters not Dems in general. As other posters have said Dems will come home when they see what is at stake.

    Hillary cannot win without Independents and Obama cannot win without the blue collar Dems. Both candidates need the others constituency come Nov.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 16:59  

  • If Democrats nominate Hillary they can kiss goodbye control of Congress. This woman is so polarizing that Democrats could lose enough seats in Congress to give the chamber back to Republicans. Do you want that?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 18:15  

  • The last poll I read about stated that only 56% of Democrats would vote for Obama if he was the nominee. I read that here. Independants may be the key here, but the vast majority would vote for Hillary,while only a small majority of Democrats would vote for Obama. Obama is a sure loser. He's simply unelectable. Only a fool would conclude otherwise.

    Perhaps you should look at other polls. National polls show Obama doing about the same as Clinton in head-to-head match-ups against McCain. Any Democratic defections would be reflected in those numbers. I think that pretty much destroys the "Clinton can win but Obama can't" argument.

    And I really find it hard to believe that so many Democrats would desert when November comes around. With the issue of Iraq, health care, the economy, and tax cuts for the wealthy, will nearly half of Democrats really vote for McCain or stay home? I suppose it could happen, but it just sounds absurd.

    I think that number reflects the antagonism of the primary. It's a long way to November. Democrats will realize what's in their best interests--or suffer for their short-sightedness.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 12 April, 2008 19:07  

  • I think Hillary is polarizing to republicans. She's certainly more popular among Democrats than Barack. I think Barack loses congress and the WH.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 19:42  

  • I think Barack [sic] loses congress and the WH.

    Not a chance the Dems lose the House or the Senate, no matter who tops the ticket. Just look at the races.

    Landrieu is currently the only vulnerable Democratic senator, and her race looks like dead heat at the moment. Meanwhile on the Republican side, VA is practically certain to flip, NH and NM are likely, and there are several other Republican seats in play. Republicans would have to win in LA and run the table with everyone else to regain the majority. Not going to happen.

    On the House side, I'm not sure there are enough Democratic incumbent toss-ups to change the majority even if Republicans won all those races and held onto all their seats. Plus they're not going to hold on to all their seats. There are numerous Republican-held open seats that are very likely to flip. Though it's a ways to November, the individual races are pointing towards net gains for Democrats; given that prospect, it's unlikely Republicans will gain seats, much less enough to take the House.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 12 April, 2008 20:02  

  • If 44% of Hillary supporters stay home or worse,vote republican, that's up to 22% off current numbers for congressional Democrats. It could be a bloodbath. The party nominee should be the one that loses less votes. That's Hillary right now. It used to be Barack just a few months ago.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 20:11  

  • What you don't realize is that many Congressional Democrats need Republican votes to get reelected.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 April, 2008 22:10  

  • What you don't realize is that many Congressional Democrats need Republican votes to get reelected.

    Look at the races. There just aren't very many vulnerable incumbent Democrats. Republicans have had difficulty even finding serious candidates to run against many of them. If those Democrats got votes before, there's little reason to think they won't get votes again.

    And there are a lot of open Republican-held House seats in districts that have been trending Democratic. The outlook just isn't good for the GOP. Go look at individual races and find the likely flips either way. (Heck, just look at Taniel's analysis on this website.) I think you'll see that Republicans will have a tough time picking up seats in either chamber, much less taking over either of them, especially the House. (Chris Cillizza "The Fix" blog at the Washington Post lists the 10 races he thinks are most likely to flip; only 2 Democrats make the cut, and they're back at numbers 8 and 10. The others are all open Republican-held seats.)

    Absolute worst-case Dem scenario in the Senate is Landrieu loses in LA and Warner wins in VA, which would be a wash. But Shaheen is substantially ahead in NH, and Udall is looking good in NM, so a Democratic pick-up is likely. (Cillizza's blog has 6 Republican-held Senate seats as more likely to flip than Landrieu at number 7. He could be wrong, but you have to actually look at the races, not make generalizations based on--what, exactly?)

    By Blogger dsimon, At 13 April, 2008 00:43  

  • dsimon, having a divisive and unpopular figure like Hillary at the top of the ticket could hurt Democrats chances at substantial gains. Democrats need to win every seat they can get.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 13 April, 2008 00:45  

  • We're off into speculation land here, but I seriously doubt Democrats will lose seats with Clinton as the presidential nominee. I don't see it changing the Dems' worst-case Senate scenario, which would be a wash (only one Democratic incumbent seems at risk, and even that loss would be offset by the pickup in VA, which looks pretty certain). And I don't see enough Dems losing in the House to offset the gains that look probable in the many open Republican-held seats, much less enough to lose their majority. Again, I think worst-case is status quo, and even that's unlikely.

    Yes, the nominee may influence races here and there. But a scenario where Democrats actually lose either chamber is, I think, extremely farfetched.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 13 April, 2008 10:25  

  • Apparently Barack is more divise and surely more unpopular than Hillary. He'll face united republicans with only half support from Democrats at best. We may get to witness a tragedy. I think his nomination is doomed. (I still won't call for him to quit because I'm a little too mature for that kind of behavior.)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 13 April, 2008 19:52  

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