We're dealing tonight with a classic Kinsleyian "gaffe," where a candidate says what he means and then is forced to account for it. Let's separate, for the moment, the politics of Obama's words from the argument he is making.
At his San Francisco fundraiser, Obama was sketching out a variation of the Thomas Frank argument about working class voters who seem to choose candidates whose policies cut against their economic interest. In Obama's version, working class voters in the Midwest have been inured to promises of economic redress because both Democrats and Republicans promise to help and never do; since government is a source of distress in their lives, they organize their politics around more stable institutions, like churches or cultural practices, like hunting. The outlet for their economic duress is in lashing out, in giving voice to their grievances; In Obama's formulation, Republicans are especially eager and willing to exploit cultural trigger points.
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of 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.
There is some truth to this. Even John McCain has expressed a similar sentiment about immigration politics.
But the perilous words for Obama are "bitter," "cling to," "guns" and "religion." Those disinclined to put themselves in Obama's head will read the sentences and see Obama dismissing both religion and American gun culture the opiates of the masses and suggesting that their faith and lifestyle are the product of their bitterness. Voters may believe that one's position on cultural issues is a better reflection of their inner values than one's position on economics.
The substance of what Obama said has the makings of a very good Firing Line broadcast. (Alas...)
The elite media and most Democrats will say... "yeah.. .So? Obama is simply describing world as we know it." His opponents and people who are inclined to view Obama as an elitist will say, "he is dismissing the culture and religion of working class whites."
Indeed, the responses to Obama's words have proven (to Obama allies) a part of his argument. Conservatives are already portraying Obama as liberal, elite, out of touch with the values of ordinary Americans -- exactly the type of legerdemain that Obama was pointing to.
So there's a debate to be had about substance.
But the politics are unquestionably dangerous for a candidate whose appeal depends on him transcending traditional political adjectives like "liberal" or "elite."
Despite his working class upbringing, Obama's hyperconfidence sometimes translates as holier-than-thou, elitist, aristocratic, Dukakis-esque. Republicans know that these attributes aren't popular in middle America, so they will use every opportunity to remind independents and moderates about them.
Obama's professorial disquisition at a fundraiser reinforces in real time these stereotypes. And the complexity of his subject matter does not lend itself to an easy response.
One bright spot for Obama: his campaign's response to the story was quick and strong. Obama himself extemporaneously incorporated a defense of his remarks about an hour and a half after the story broke; the Obama campaign sent reporters examples of similar comments made by Hillary Clinton; the campaign entrusted Tommy Vietor, a mid-level spokesman, to give its official response; had a more senior campaign official given the response, it would have conveyed panic.