Pursuing the white, 'hardworking' voter

May 13, 2008|By Clarence Page

A day after her hoped-for monster triumph in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries fizzled, Sen. Hillary Clinton no longer seemed to care whom she offended. She dared to speak about race and gender in public with the candid language that even political consultants usually keep private.

Despite losing big to Sen. Barack Obama in North Carolina's Democratic primary and barely squeaking out a victory in Indiana, she said in an interview with USA Today that "I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on."

And who might that "broader base" be? She cited an Associated Press story "that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

"There's a pattern emerging here," she said. Yes, there is a pattern here and it's not a very pretty one. When Mrs. Clinton is implying out loud that her opponent's supporters are not hardworking enough, white enough or undereducated enough, it's hardly a high point in her campaign.

But the former first lady rejected the notion that her comments were racially divisive. "These are the people you have to win, if you're a Democrat, in sufficient numbers to actually win the election," she said. "Everybody knows that."

She has a point. Exit polls in Indiana and North Carolina showed her beating Mr. Obama among white voters, particularly white men, and voters who lack college degrees.

She won about 60 percent of the white vote in both states, down from the 65 percent of the white vote she won in the Ohio primary on March 4 and the 63 percent she received in Pennsylvania on April 22. She is expected to do well in today's primary in overwhelmingly white West Virginia.

Black voters, by contrast, turned out 9-1 for Mr. Obama in Indiana and North Carolina, which is close to the black turnout for Democratic presidential candidates in recent decades. Some white bloggers see some veiled form of black supremacy in that turnout. They might have a case among those who choose not to remember how hard Mr. Obama had to work to woo black voters away from Mrs. Clinton before his South Carolina primary victory.

Remember those days when everyone seemed to be asking whether Mr. Obama was "black enough" to win African-American votes? Now Mrs. Clinton is questioning whether he is too "elitist" to win the votes of "hardworking people." That was the message of her Charleston, W.Va., speech a day after her newspaper interview: "We need to bring back hardworking people to the Democratic Party. I'm winning Catholic voters and Hispanic voters, blue-collar workers and seniors. People Senator [John] McCain will need in the general election."

She's right to observe that Mr. Obama has a challenge ahead in winning white swing voters, if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination. But so does she, considering how despised she has been among conservatives over the years. Taking advice from Hillary Clinton on winning white males in light of that history sounds about as wise as taking child care advice from Britney Spears.

Yet, as Mrs. Clinton's relentless pursuit of the Democratic nomination has shown, she's a fighter. Her recent populist pitch to "hardworking people" ("Some call you swing voters; I call you Americans," she said in Charleston) is an appeal not so much to color as to culture.

The great unspoken question in voters' minds is whether a candidate is on their side, understands their values and connects with the way they see the world. That big question turns Mr. Obama's biggest asset, his being fresh and new, into a liability when it causes people to question how well they know him - and how well he knows them.

Those doubts were enhanced when incendiary sound bites from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., brought Mr. Obama's approval ratings down to those of mortal people. His impressive showing in Indiana and North Carolina appears to have put concerns about Pastor Wright to rest for now, although they are certain to return in attack ads in the fall if Mr. Obama becomes the Democratic nominee. That will be a very different campaign from the one Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have waged so far.

With that in mind, the most important moment for Democratic fortunes won't be in the selection of the nominee, but in soothing the anger and disappointment of the side that loses. Once the party's leaders bring themselves back together, they'll have to reach out and unify the folks who really count: the voters, regardless of race, color, gender or how "hardworking" they appear to be.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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