Bob Herbert joins the vast majority of punditry in scolding Barack Obama over his comments in San Francisco about small-town Midwestern voters. Before readers get their hopes up about Herbert suddenly discovering common sense, they should note that Herbert thinks Obama failed to go far enough. He writes that Obama should have explicitly called them racists:
He was asked at a fund-raiser in San Francisco about his campaign’s experiences in the run-up to next week’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. One of the main problems, of course, is that he hasn’t generated as much support as he’d like among white working-class voters.
There is no mystery here. Except for people who have been hiding in caves or living in denial, it’s pretty widely understood that a substantial number of those voters — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere — will not vote for a black candidate for president.
Pennsylvanians themselves will tell you that racial attitudes in some parts of the state are, to be kind, less than enlightened. Gov. Ed Rendell, Hillary Clinton’s most powerful advocate in the state, put it bluntly last February: “I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.” …
Senator Obama has spent his campaign trying to dodge the race issue, which in America is like trying to dodge the wind. So when he fielded the question in San Francisco, he didn’t say: “A lot of folks are not with me because I’m black — but I’m trying to make my case and bring as many around as I can.”
Instead, he fell back on a tortured response that was demonstrably incorrect.
Well, in fact Obama came close to saying just that. In a portion of the comments that have not received much scrutiny, Obama commented about the cynicism felt by small-town voters about the power of government to improve their lives, which was the overall point of his remarks. He said this (emphasis mine):
Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by — it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism.
It’s not quite as explicit as Herbert advises, but the implication is crystal clear. It certainly was to his San Francisco audience on Billionaires Row, as the laughter indicates. That same laughter erupted again when he described small-town voters as gun-clinging, Bible-clinging people who have “antipathy to people not like them”, which is almost explicitly an accusation of bigotry.
That was the laughter of recognition, of Obama speaking to their own prejudices about middle America and identifying himself as a holder of those same prejudices. It’s not Obama challenging small-town voters in an honest manner to overcome what he sees as their bigotry. It’s Obama getting together with friends to laugh over their assumptions about middle America.
Herbert then says that it’s “perverse” to see Obama as a divisive figure. Really? How would accusing small-town voters of racism, either barely implicitly as Obama did or explicitly as Herbert wishes, make him anything but divisive? He wasn’t attempting to speak with “great insight and empathy” about the plight of middle America — he was explaining to Obama’s true believers among the hard Left why small-town voters hadn’t jumped on board the Big Government Express. He was drawing lines, and prejudiced and ignorant lines at that. That’s practically a textbook definition of divisiveness.
Fortunately for Obama, he doesn’t appear to be foolish enough to take Herbert’s advice and go the full Jeremiah Wright on the campaign trail. He still hasn’t quite learned the First Rule of Holes, but Obama is smart enough to figure it out sooner than later. When he stops trying to justify his remarks, the furor may finally settle down — but it won’t disappear.
Update: Ace has more on Herbert.