Yet another private remark by a politician has been brought to the attention of the public by the media. This time, it is Barack Obama. In a private conversation, Obama was discussing working class voters who are apparently resisting his attempts to get their support.
In regards to these folks, he sad that they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” When these words became public, he stated the obvious: they were ill chosen. Naturally, Hillary Clinton took advantage of the situation to accuse Obama of being “elitist and out of touch.”
This does show an obvious problem faced by all politicians-there are no private conversations. Anything a politician says, private or not, will most likely end up in the news at some point. To modify the old philosophical problem: if a politician says something controversial in the woods and there is no one to hear her (or him), will it create a scandal? The answer is: that is a trick question-someone is always around to hear him (or her).
Turning now to Obama’s remark, he was unwise to say such a thing. While he was directing his remarks towards a certain group of people, his remark will be seen by some (or even many) as expressing a negative view of gun ownership and religion in general. From a political standpoint, people who like guns and religious people are two politically powerful groups (although religious people do, obviously enough, do not form a monolithic political group). Saying something that will be seen as offensive is not a very effective political move. Further, Obama (like all the candidates) has been trying to cast himself as religious. Such a remark, though logically consistent with being a person of faith, certainly is not calculated to appeal to religious voters.
His remark is almost certainly not going to help him win over the “bitter working class voters.” Rather, it will probably make them more bitter.
Hillary Clinton’s remark does seem to have some plausibility. Taking the view that working class people are clinging to guns, God and (presumably) racism does seem like an elitist view. After all, it seems to assume that the working class is not bitter and hard to win over because of legitimate concerns held by the individuals. Of course, for Hillary to hit Obama with the charge of being an elitist who is out of touch is somewhat ironic, given her own situation. Most “high end” politicians tend to be out of touch elites. After all, their lifestyles, concerns and such are quite different from those of most “normal” people. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that multimillionaire senators are “in touch” with the majority of Americans in a meaningful way.
One final and obvious question is this: what effect will this remark have on Obama’s chances?
It will have a negative impact, at least initially. But, Obama has shown that he is quite adept at damage control. He handled the Wright situation quite effectively and suffered no lasting harm. In fact, his speech on race seems to have helped him in many ways. In contrast, Hillary’s tall tales about coming under sniper fire and her attempts at damage control actually hurt her. I suspect that Obama will be able to use his skills of persuasion to mitigate any damage this remark might cause. To be a bit cynical, some of his supporters probably share his views in this matter.