But this exchange convinced me that there is more going on here than meets the eye and that another issue has to be addresses -- that of race. So let me start out with my conventional analysis and then move on to race.
Comparing the insult:
Obama started out with what was actually a promising beginning:
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.This would actually go over well -- if he proposed to do something about it, or acknowledged that he didn't know what to do about it but would make it a priority, or told his donors that until the Democratic Party can offer something to the small town white working class, it has no business expecting their votes. But then, of course, he added:
So it's not surprising then that 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.Contrast that to Romney::
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.Romney is clearly insulting a large portion of the population. I agree with Rich Lowry's analysis -- that Romney is lumping together three disparate groups -- the ones who regularly vote Democratic, the ones who don't pay income taxes, and the ones who receive government benefits -- and writing them collectively off as a lost cause. This is a highly offensive argument. I am also inclined to agree with Lowry that Romney is picking up unrelated conservative concerns and lumping them together without really understanding them. But in this he is doing no different than countless other popularizers and vulgarizers do all the time.
Obama, by contrast, is trying to "understand" and encourage his donors to "understand" people he doesn't understand at all. He is equating what many people proudly hold up as virtue with social pathology. His remarks are properly offensive, but more ignorant and patronizing than deliberately hostile -- or so I believed until just recently.
Conor Friedersdorf has wisely that the damage in remarks like this is not just in their insult to large portions of the population. It is also in showing that what candidates say in closed meetings of donors is not what they say to the general public. People jump to the conclusion that they are simply lying or pandering to the general public, and the what they say in secret to donors is what they really believe.
I have no doubt that Obama really meant what he said in the "bitter clingers" speech. He was, after all, not just pandering to his donors. He was asking them to move at least a little beyond their comfort zone and show at least a little understanding for how some people might be so benighted as to disagree with them. Romney, by contrast, was telling his donors what they wanted to hear, so there is no way of knowing whether he actually meant it or was just pandering. (See Lowry, above, for an excellent case that he was pandering).
I am less clear, however, which candidate this reflects less favorably on. It is sort of like the Ron Paul news letter controversy. Which is worse, that Ron Paul believes all the paranoid lunacy in his newsletters, or that he doesn't believe it, but panders to people who do? Which is worse, a candidate who sincerely believes offensive things about his fellow countrymen, or one who merely pretends to to pander to wealth donors?
But to some people, it all comes down to race. Is the critical part of both speeches race?
I will start with Romney. No, I do not believe that his comments were intended as a plausibly deniable appeal to racial resentment, for two reasons. First, he was speaking at a closed gathering of donors. There is no need to maintain plausible deniability in closed meetings. Second, wealthy donors don't have racial resentments, at least not ones that they will admit to, and don't want even plausibly deniable appeals to racism. The resentment of the upper class against the perceived laziness and irresponsibility of the lower is longstanding and independent of race. On the other hand, I suspect his remarks will do him less harm than they ought. Yes, a great many Republicans fall within the 47%, either who don't pay taxes or who receive some sort of government benefits. But my guess is that they don't see themselves as within the nearly half of the population who will never "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." My guess is that most Republican voters, including ones who pay no income tax, assume that Romney was talking about someone else, and probably not someone white.
I had long been baffled by the people who described the "bitter clinger" remark as an expression of hate and intentional insult. Yes, it was offensive. Yes, patronizing. Yes, it essentially dismissed religion as the opium of the masses. But actual hate? But this was what finally clued me in to the real reason the remark has stuck to him. It wasn't the remark about clinging to guns and religion. It was the part about clinging to " antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment." Bingo! A lot of people took this as an accusation of racism. And the same people tended to think both that false accusations of racism are rampant, and that they are the dirtiest form of politics possible. What am I to make of that?
First, I don't think Obama was trying for plausible deniability for the same reason that I don't think Romney was. There is no need to maintain plausible deniability in a closed meeting of donors. On the other hand, yeah, I do think it is possible that he was making an accusation of racism, or at least nativism towards at least some rural Americans. But, contrary to my conversation partner at the link, I certainly do not think he was casting his net anywhere near as broadly as Romney. He certainly wasn't saying that nearly half the population were racist (or nativist). He was making the accusation toward a (deliberately) ill-defined sub-group. But then there is another little awkward fact. Yeah, probably racism (or nativism) does play some role in the world view of some people, especially the more passionate anti-immigration types. I also believe that small town virtues (the guns and religion, representing, as they do, a closer knit, more personal, more human society than Obama's donor base) are inseparable from small town vices (antipathy toward outsiders not part of the tight-knit community).
So I suppose you could say advantage Romney, who was not talking about race, over Obama who may have been remotely raising the subject. But I do not believe that racism was Obama's primary emphasis.