Monday, April 14, 2008

Clinging to a clunker

In marked contrast to his handling of the Wright controversy, Obama is firing round the target as he parries attacks on his "bitter" comment. First, he mocked the suggestion that it's elitist to characterize a swath of white working class voters as 'bitter.' But that's not where the offense lay -- the problem was not saying that some voters are bitter but characterizing certain political passions as products of bitterness and disillusion with government. Then, last night at the 'Compassion Forum' at Messiah College, he claimed in effect that when he said "they cling to guns, the cling to religion" etc., he didn't mean 'cling' in a bad way (it's good to 'cling' to religion and tradition in times of stress). That's ridiculous. That's not what he meant. Now, he's ridiculing Hillary's joyously combative overreaction -- which is justifiable, but does not address the core of his offense. It looks like he's changing the subject. And the mockery sounds hollow and arrogant.

In fact, his false explanation last night -- that saying "they cling to religion' was in effect praising such clinging as a strong response to adversity -- makes matters worse, because it takes that remark at face value instead of acknowledging that "religion" was in this case shorthand for religious-right hot buttons such as gay marriage, abortion, and school prayer. It would be hard to say, "I don't think religion is a crutch, but theocratic political planks are.' But his alternative explanation, because it concedes (wrongly) that he meant "they cling to religion" literally, lends credence to the right-wing attack machine meme that Obama has simply faked his own faith for political expedience. The explain-away focuses on the word "cling," which in fact meant what people assumed it to mean, rather than on the word "religion," which meant "politicized theocratic nostrums."

The comment is difficult and damaging because it's the flip side of Obama's "one nation" message. His appeal to evangelicals is based on a belief that their faith can be channeled into poverty alleviation and seeking economic justice rather than curtailing gay rights and restricting abortion. What slipped was his belief that people turn to such issues out of frustration and cynicism. It's one thing to say, I disagree with you on X, but let's agree on Y. But that message is undercut somewhat when you purport to dissect my (unflattering) motives for believing X.

This is latest instance of Obama's sometime tendency to dig deeper when he's in a hole.

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