Back to the Future
Since Tuesday every Democrat has been thinking hard about Ohio. Obama’s close loss in Texas doesn’t matter much because Texas won’t vote for a Democrat in November. Rhode Island doesn’t matter more than New Hampshire; it’s a small, isolated state that will have little influence in the general election.
But Ohio is different. It’s a key battleground state that is likely to be vital in November. So Obama’s campaign has to come to grips with why he lost by ten points there.
Four explanations are in circulation. First, Hillary put Obama off balance with attacks on Rezko and NAFTA—the latter based on an adviser’s statements inconsistent with Obama’s stump speeches. Second, Obama failed in Ohio to make the same inroads into Hillary’s core demographic groups that he did in Wisconsin. Third, Ohio has more of those demographic groups: working folk with no college education and older women. Finally, the recent, steady drumbeat of terrible economic news undermined Obama’s core message of hope. It’s hard to believe in hope when you’ve lost your job and don’t have health care and we’re going into recession.
All of these explanations have at least a germ of truth. But the last one is the key, and it may explain the second.
I agree strongly with New York Times columnist David Brooks that Obama cannot take the low road. If he stoops to personal attacks like the “gotchas” which Hillary’s camp unloads daily, he will besmirch his unique brand. I wrote as much last June when the “D. Punjab” flap broke. Even I might start to lose faith in Obama if he got down in the mud.
There’s a difference between getting down in the mud and drawing comparisons on vital matters of domestic and foreign policy. Obama has been much too slow to point out—in detail and specifics—how wrong Hillary has been on Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan and in proposing economic solutions worthy of Hugo Chavez.
These and other contrasts of judgment and policy are fair game. If Obama makes them with his usual understatement and self-restraint, they will not harm his brand. On the contrary, they will show the toughness that voters demand of a prospective commander in chief.
But policy contrasts go only so far. Policy junkies and overeducated intellectuals like me love them. I doubt working folk do. They don’t have the time, education or patience to parse what seem minor differences in policy. Far less can they understand why a five-year interest-rate freeze and health-care mandates are bad ideas.
What they want is a candidate who seems to care about them and understand their pain. Hillary evidently won their hearts in Ohio, and she didn’t do it with specifics of policy. She captured some Edwards voters—who rightfully belong to Obama—by showing that she cares.
That was a remarkable achievement for her and her campaign. Hillary is a sheltered woman from a privileged, upper-middle-family, who has never experienced any economic hardship in her life. (Bill’s philandering caused her personal hardship, but that’s another story.) Somehow, she managed to convince Ohio’s working people that she understands their pain better than a man who spent three years in Chicago working with people in precisely their position.
So how can Obama turn this setback around? He can go back to the future. He can take a mental trip back to his early days in Chicago and re-learn how to connect with workers who have less than one-tenth his intelligence and education.
Obama can’t do it on hope alone. Those workers have little hope left. Every day’s news chips away at their hope a little more. And a promise of change is just another brand of hope. No wonder cynical Hillary is gaining ground.
David Brooks was prescient on this point. A few weeks ago he opined that events, not campaign strategy or speeches, would decide the Democratic nomination. He was right. In the single month since Super Tuesday, our economic news has changed dramatically. What was once a feared recession is now reality, and hard times are upon us. Obama has to show working people that he’s been there and can help.
He needn’t fight that battle alone. His book Dreams from my Father tells wonderful tales of ordinary people with whom he worked. He helped many change their own lives for the better. Now he should get some of them to join his campaign and tell their stories to voters. They can speak in a language that workers rapidly losing all hope can understand.
However he does it, Obama must connect viscerally to working people who are—with good reason—increasingly worried and afraid. His economic policies are better and more prudent than Hillary’s and more likely to work. But policies won’t close the deal with working folk. If Obama can’t find some way to connect with them where they live, he might yet lose.