Behind the controversy over whether Sen. Obama's description of rural Pennsylvanians as "bitter" about their economic circumstances was condescending, there is another argument, one that's been lurking, unspoken, since the beginning of the Democratic campaign. It's a debate about the legacy and meaning of the last 16 years of the Democratic Party, and both candidates have said some highly provocative things, putting cards on the table that they've been holding for months.
First, Sen. Clinton. In the "Compassion Forum" Sunday night, she tried to depict Obama as comparable to the last two defeated Democratic nominees: "Large segments of the electorate concluded that [Al Gore and John Kerry] did not really understand or relate to or frankly respect their ways of life."
That's quite a nasty dig at two nominees who did, after all, win 4 million and 12 million more votes, respectively, than her husband's best performance. And while it is true that the perception of Kerry as somewhat aloof and WASPy may have had something to do with his not doing well enough to win, it's a lot harder to say that about Gore. Yes, Gore's loss of the Appalachian belt running through West Virginia, his home state of Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio probably had something to do with guns and social issues trumping economic concerns.
But is that because Al Gore himself did not "respect their ways of life"? Or because he was the vice president in an administration that advocated gun control and ended in a tawdry scandal? And, further, an administration that did little to turn around the economic prospects of that region? Gore lost because he was paralyzed in deciding how to define himself independently of the Clinton administration, which would have meant renouncing some aspects of the administration. He couldn't do it, out of a personal dignity and loyalty that was not reciprocated at the time, and evidently is not reciprocated now.
But Gore was just collateral damage in the story that Clinton is trying to tell, in which she and Bill Clinton, alone among national Democrats in the last three decades, had the secret formula to reassemble the New Deal coalition that connected working-class whites, minorities, and educated professionals. According to this account, Bill Clinton brought the "Reagan Democrats," who abandoned Mondale and Dukakis, back into the fold, but Gore and Kerry lost them again. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has lost much of the 1990s coalition already, and is, forgive the word, "clinging" to what remains.
It's a hard case to make, because there is no real reason to believe that the working-class white voters who vote in Democratic primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere have much of a predictive relationship to the working-class white voters who will decide the outcome of those states in November. Few of those who turn out to vote in a Democratic primary are likely to reject the Democratic nominee in November, whatever they say now. Meanwhile, Obama has assembled a robust new coalition that adds, for example, the fifth-generation Republicans who are re-registering as Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Obama, meanwhile is telling another story about the recent Democratic past. His remarks in San Francisco have been taken as a version of Tom Frank's argument in What's the Matter with Kansas, that working-class whites are drawn to Republicans or conservative social causes because they are distracted from their true economic interests. There are several good responses to Frank. One is to question why people's economic interests should be seen as more legitimate than their spiritual or social commitments; this is the essence of the Clinton/McCain counterattack. The other is to ask why working-class whites, especially those in once-prosperous, now dying towns should see Democrats as supportive of their economic interests. What has the Democratic Party offered that would really address the economic crisis of, say, Hazleton, Pennsylvania? (A town I pick because it was the locus of an immigration controversy a couple years ago, and as it happens, the birthplace of both my father and the third Mrs. Rudy Giuliani.)
While Tom Frank's claim was that Republicans had, in effect, tricked voters, Obama was suggesting something different -- that the Democratic Party had tricked them as well. "They fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not," he said, in the context of explaining (to a supporter who was planning to go to Pennsylvania on his behalf) why people might be cynical about another 10-point plan or promise from a politician.
That's an indictment of the Clinton years as sharp as Clinton's indictment of Gore and Kerry. Obama is basically arguing that the 1992 campaign that promised "Putting People First," with a sharp, substantive agenda of public investment and health care -- the basic Truman/New Deal package -- instead put the bond market first, delivering balanced-budgets, NAFTA, welfare reform, and symbolic appeals to the suburban middle-class swing vote. The near-full employment economy of the Clinton years was a boon for many poorer areas and families -- many cities recovered from the crisis of the late 1980s, African Americans did well, and much of the Rust Belt economy improved. But it did very little for the coal, steel, and textile towns in the region that Gore lost, areas dependent on transferable industries disproportionately affected by globalization.
Why not bring that critique out more sharply? If Obama could spell that out in Pennsylvania, rather than in the comfortable confines of a Bay Area fundraiser , the controversy over the word "bitter" -- which Clinton answered first with a cheery salute to the can-do spirit of rural Pennsylvanians -- could be turned to his advantage.
The problem is none of us have answers that are adequate to the economic circumstances of the depressed Appalachian belt. Trade deals were no answer, but a moratorium on trade deals, or an insistence on environmental and labor standards in trade deals, won't do much for these towns, either. The "skills-based technology change" theory, which presumes that education alone will connect everyone to the manufacturing jobs of the future, explains much less than David Brooks would like to believe. A robust universal health-care system, not tied to employment, would mitigate the consequences of economic insecurity and job loss but would not create jobs where they don't exist, especially if coupled with the kind of health-care cost controls that will inevitably reduce some of the entry-level service-sector jobs that our wasteful health system creates. If unionization rates had not declined as far since the 1960s, much might be different, but they are not going back up, and you can't unionize without jobs.
Obama has the makings of a meaningful economic agenda for the depressed corners of our country: A "National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank" that would invest $60 billion in public roads and bridges, a "green jobs" initiative to capture the next big economic wave. All these can help. (Clinton has her own, slightly smaller, versions of the same.) But to give voters like those in rural Pennsylvania a real reason to believe that their economic circumstances could be different, he will have to couple the critique of Clintonism that was implicit in his San Francisco remarks with a much bigger vision, a kind of new New Deal, tied to his communitarian appreciation of the significance of rebuilding all the bonds of a community -- economic, social, educational. And then he will have to convince people that it's not just another trick. And if other issues have a higher priority in their lives, so be it.