Changing the Changeling

Illustration by Darrow

The spin emanating from Barack Obama’s campaign is always prompt and pointed, which offers some small compensation for its high degree of predictability. On the night of the Pennsylvania primary, an e-mail from Obama press secretary Bill Burton hit my in-box at 11:21 p.m., announcing pithily in its subject line the essence of the message that the campaign would deliver relentlessly in the days ahead: “A fundamentally unchanged race.” On a number of levels, this spin had the virtue of comporting with reality. It was true that Hillary Clinton’s win had done little to erode Obama’s nearly insurmountable pledged-delegate advantage. It was true that, even after being bested by 200,000 ballots in the Keystone State, Obama retained a solid lead in the overall popular vote. And it was true that the likelihood of Obama’s eventual nomination remained extremely high.

What was not true, however, was that the outcome in Pennsylvania had changed nothing of importance. As the next few days would prove in spades, Clinton’s victory had done more than allow her to fight another day. It had altered the narrative of the campaign, however temporarily. For the past six weeks, the central question occupying the political world was, Why won’t—or when will—Hillary quit? But now the questions du jour were starkly different: Why can’t Obama close the deal? Why can’t he connect with working people? And, relatedly but even more ominous, is Obama unelectable?

That such questions are being asked at all should be worrying to Obama-land, for raising doubts about the hopemonger’s prospects against John McCain is the only way that Clinton might yet derail his coronation. And the answers to those questions should be more worrying still, since they point to significant vulnerabilities—from his aloofness to his alleged elitism to the mere fact of his race—that could seriously hobble Obama in the fall.

But before superdelegates leap to any rash conclusions, and before any other fretful Democrats start leaping from the nearest bridge, they’d do well to remember that Clinton and McCain have glaring weaknesses of their own. And although many Democrats bemoan a primary process that has left Obama bruised and battered, by exposing his foibles this grueling ordeal may yet prove salutary—because the only thing more dangerous than a flawed candidate is the starry-eyed, mushy-brained delusion that he is perfect.

A few days after the New Hampshire primary, a prominent Democratic operative not aligned with either Obama or Clinton imagined for me a scene that he believed would occur in countless blue-collar and rural homes across the country as the race unfolded: “The husband comes downstairs on Primary Day, and he says, ‘Ma, you’ll never believe what I’m gonna do—I’m gonna vote for Hillary Clinton!’ ” A pregnant pause. “ ‘Because there’s just no way I can pull the lever for that black fella.’ ”

For a few weeks back in February, during Obama’s astonishing string of primary victories, this projection seemed too pessimistic. First, in Virginia and Maryland, Obama ventured into two racially diverse states and ate into Clinton’s impregnable base among working-class whites. In Virginia, he carried the white vote overall and beat her among whites earning under $50,000 a year; in Maryland, he defeated her among white blue-collar men and white Catholics. Then came Wisconsin, where he trounced HRC by nine points among whites overall and won among voters at every income and education level. Suddenly, the pertinent question was: What Clinton coalition?

But in Ohio and Pennsylvania (and, to a lesser extent, Texas), Hillary was able to reassemble that coalition with a vengeance. In the Buckeye and Keystone states, she scored 64 and 63 percent, respectively, of the overall white vote and racked up even higher margins among blue-collar Caucasians. Why does this matter? Because for more than 40 years, the ability to capture working-stiff whites has been the sine qua non for Democratic success at the presidential level. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did relatively well at this and won; Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry did not. Indeed, the writers John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have calculated that, to win the White House, a Democrat needs to win 45 to 48 percent of lunch-pail-toting white voters in the heartland states.

That Obama is having big trouble with such voters would be bad enough by itself. But making matters worse is his abysmal recent performance among white Catholics: He claimed 34 percent of their vote in Ohio and 29 in Pennsylvania. In the past two elections, according to Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston, among others, white Catholics have emerged as perhaps the most pivotal constituency in the electorate—one concentrated in midwestern states that Democrats must win and whose dramatic swing toward George W. Bush was arguably decisive in 2000 and 2004. (According to Galston, in fact, that shift alone accounted for Dubya’s victory over Kerry in Ohio and Florida.)

And Obama isn’t merely losing godly ground among white Catholics. Whereas in Maryland and Wisconsin he outpaced Clinton by as much as 30 points among regular churchgoers of all stripes, in Pennsylvania she whipped him by double-digits among the observant, while he did best among those who never attend religious services. At the same time, whereas Obama used to routinely thump Clinton among voters describing themselves as conservative, moderate, and somewhat liberal, in Pennsylvania the only ideological cohort he carried was the self-described “very liberal.” In a flash, a candidate who once was hailed as post-partisan, post-ideological, and post-racial was looking like a typical secular lefty, with a base comprising college students, African-Americans, and upscale “progressives.” No wonder, then, that Judis—but not just Judis—has started to wonder whether Obama might just be “the next McGovern.”

The reasons for Obama’s image transformation aren’t hard to pinpoint. In the minds of more than a few white voters the controversy surrounding his association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has helped turn Obama from a candidate who is black into a black candidate. His now-infamous bitter/cling comments went a long way toward cementing a picture of him that was already forming—as a down-the-nose-looking elitist at worst, as a detached academic at best. His association with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant Weatherman turned elder statesman of Hyde Park, has helped his enemies to cast him as a spiritual descendant of old-school sixties rabble-rouserism.

But neither Ayers nor any other random bits of ephemera account completely for Obama’s rebranding as a standard-issue liberal. “He’s tried to be post-partisan on the cheap,” says Galston, “through bring-us-together rhetoric and leadership style as opposed to substance.” Galston, it should be said, is a supporter of Clinton’s, but he harbors no animus toward Obama—and, more to the point, he’s 100 percent correct. After months of trailing Obama, I can’t recall a single policy or proposal he’s offered that couldn’t have been put forward happily by Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy.

The bright side of this story—and there is a bright side—is that the fall election isn’t shaping up to be one in which charges of liberalism or other cultural caricature are central. Instead, what lies before us is a contest, as McCain put it recently, about great issues and large differences. The war in Iraq. The onrushing recession. The collapse of the mortgage market. Health care and climate change. “In years when peace or prosperity are at stake, let alone peace and prosperity, other considerations become secondary,” says Galston. “This is such a year.”

On all these matters, Obama is—or could be—a superior Democratic messenger to Clinton. And in one crucial respect, he has already proved to be her better: In his extraordinary ability to draw new participants into the political arena. This may be the single best salve to Democratic worries about his electability, which are, after all, rooted in a static notion of the electorate; in a belief that the electoral battlefield of tomorrow will be roughly the same as the battlefield on which yesterday’s campaigns were fought. If the Democratic primaries thus far have taught us only one thing, it’s that such assumptions are badly misguided.

For all the labored comparisons of Obama to Jack Kennedy, it’s here that the analogy may actually prove valid. As Galston points out, “In 1960 Kennedy did worse than a more traditional—a.k.a. a Protestant—Democrat would have done in substantial portions of the South. He won because he expanded the electorate and got a disproportionate share of the parts that expanded most. His numbers among Catholics were phenomenal! So there’s an intriguing parallel: Obama may lose a greater portion of the white working class than another Democrat would get, but he may very well be able to make it up among the new voters he brings into the process.”

A happy thought, for sure. But Obama and his people would be making a grave error if they take too much comfort from it. What the past two months have shown beyond doubt is that Obama’s campaign is in desperate need of a serious midcourse retooling—in particular, a sharper economic message, delivered from a brawler’s stance, in order to give those blue-collar voters who’ve sided with Clinton a bedrock reason to stay in the Democratic column and not flee to McCain, as many now threaten to do. Even more important, though, the time has come for Obama to move beyond his airy mantra of post-partisan transformation. The polarization that plagues our politics is an awful thing, no doubt. But the irony is that before Obama can do anything to change it, he needs to win. And winning will require him to channel the very partisan furies—the anger at Bush, the ire toward the Republicans, the palpable yearning for a fight—that he eventually hopes to tame.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Changing the Changeling