Last week was the harshest so far, by far, in the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. It was childishly harsh, with the “she did it first” back and forth over who said who wasn’t “qualified.” But was it harsh enough to hurt the party’s chances to unite in November against the Republicans?
I don’t know the answer to that, for sure, but let’s remember: this is nothing compared to 2008. As if to remind us, Monday marks the eighth anniversary of the discovery of remarks by then-Senator Obama, made to a roomful of wealthy San Francisco supporters, about white, working-class voters in Pennsylvania. It was supposed to doom his candidacy—not just according to the GOP, but to other Democrats, and not just Democrats on Clinton’s team.
On the eve of the supposedly crucial Pennsylvania primary—Clinton won it 55-45, and went on to take most of the big closing 2008 primaries—Obama had this to say:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And 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. And it’s not surprising then 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.
Recorded secretly by a Huffington Post “citizen-journalist,” Obama’s remarks—and the reaction to them—dominated several news cycles. Clinton was already winning working-class whites in states like Ohio and Texas; this incident provided an ex post facto rationale that didn’t involve his race, but rather his supposed “elitism.” At the time, I argued that Obama’s remarks, in context, were actually sympathetic to the working-class whites he was describing. But it was clear right away that the flap was going to hurt Obama, at least for a while.
“This is a perfect example of why Democrats lose elections,” John Edwards backer David “Mudcat” Saunders told The New York Times (his man had left the race months earlier). “It could mean he’s rendered himself unelectable.”
While Clinton’s current supporters have warned Sanders not to take hard shots at the party’s likely nominee, given that the Vermont socialist has a near-impossible task to catch her in delegates, they ought to recall their candidate’s response to Obama’s unfortunate comments back in 2008.
“I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America,” Clinton told reporters as the story exploded. “His remarks are elitist and out of touch.” In Indianapolis, campaigning ahead of the state’s May primary, she laid it on even thicker: “I grew up in a church-going family, a family that believed in the importance of living out and expressing our faith,” she said at a rally in Indianapolis. “The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they’re bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.” In North Carolina, Clinton campaigners distributed stickers reading: “I’m not bitter.”