Why do Americans look up for people to look down on?
We Americans sometimes baffle ourselves with ambivalence toward ambition and success.
We applaud "merit," for example, yet we turn up our noses at "elitists."
We root for the little guy, yet again and again we elect the wealthy, the powerful and the insider-connected.
In fact, we seem to love elites. It's the snoots we can't stand.
That's why Sen. Hillary Clinton figured she could block rival Sen. Barack Obama's momentum in their Democratic presidential nomination race by playing the "elitist" card.
She targeted some of Obama's remarks at a private fundraiser in San Francisco. As reported by Mayhill Fowler for the Huffington Post Web site, Obama was offering a candid explanation of why many residents of economically struggling industrial towns vote against their own economic interests. They "feel so betrayed by government," he said, that they don't think government is going to help them.
It's going to be a challenge, he said, "to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives."
With jobs disappearing over the past quarter century through Republican and Democratic administrations, Obama said, "... it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Voters don't like to be portrayed in downbeat terms like "bitter" and "cling." Obama, of all people, knows the value of emphasizing an optimistic, can-do spirit. His landmark "One America" speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention resonated with it. If he thought he could speak more casually at the San Francisco gathering, he was wrong.
That's why Clinton expresses shock shock! over his words, even though the sentiments should sound quite familiar to her.
Here, for example, is an account from the Sept. 17, 1991, Los Angeles Times of what her own husband said:
"In complaining that President (George H.W.) Bush has been exploiting the race issue to divide the Democrats, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a probable presidential contender, said: 'The reason (Bush's tactic) works so well now is that you have all these economically insecure white people who are scared to death.'"
"As Clinton sees it," wrote Times political reporter Robert Shogan, "Bush has been telling worried white workers: You're right. I won't do anything for you. Government can't do anything for you. But at least I won't do anything to you."
Of course, Obama is more vulnerable to being labeled "out of touch" with middle-American values than Bill Clinton was. Unlike Clinton, Obama did not grow up in a small middle-American town. A description of the attitudes of mostly white factory-town voters that sounds candid when it comes from Clinton can sound condescending when it comes from Obama.
That's the argument Hillary Clinton was trying to make over the weekend. Democrats lost when John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale or George McGovern seemed to be too snooty, stuffy, wooden, remote or removed from the lives of ordinary folks. And, it must be said, Democrats won when the Clintons helped cast the elder Bush in the same aloof terms.
To underscore what a Regular Guy-Person she is, the New York senator held her own weekend blue-collar tour of regular-people places. They included a bar in northern Indiana where she was cajoled into a beer, pizza and a shot of Crown Royal, a fine Canadian whiskey. A few journalists saw a geographic irony there. Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, was forced to step down days earlier because he had been advising another client, Colombia's government, in how to win ratification of a free-trade agreement that Clinton opposes.
Trade is a tricky political issue, not only for Clinton and Obama but also for Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee. Trade brings in some fine whiskeys, among other imports, and NAFTA and other free-trade agreements have resulted in more American jobs gained than lost. But try to tell that to an unemployed worker whose vote you're trying to get.
It's a lot easier to beat up your opponent as a snob who is "divisive," "elitist," "out of touch," and not someone who "stands up for you." Clinton even rushed a TV ad onto the air by Monday afternoon. It features ordinary-looking people accusing Obama, who spent years organizing displaced steelworkers and other economically distressed folks on Chicago's South Side, of being out of touch with real people.
Obama joked Monday that Clinton must think she is "doing me a favor" by toughening him up with her attacks for a fall race against McCain. Maybe she is. In the meantime, Obama should avoid thinking aloud in so-called private meetings. For politicians in the age of YouTube, there is not much privacy left.