Hillary Clinton's release Monday of her first Osama bin Laden ad sets the stage for a general contest that Republicans could only dream about: an election fought over issues of patriotism, 1960s radicalism, liberal elites, gun control, terrorist threats, intimidation by a black preacher, and a 3AM phone call signaling enemy attack.
With the bin Laden spot, Clinton has set the stage for an election in which a crucial voting block will once again be white men, and the issues will be those that tend to push these voters to the right, towards the Republican Party, regardless of which Democrat is the nominee.
Clinton has intensified her challenge to Obama with the bin Laden commercial in Pennsylvania, directly questioning his fortitude and strength in the face of foreign aggression.
As still photos of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt, Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, gas lines of the 1970s, and, most importantly, bin Laden flash across the TV screen, the announcer declares:
"It's the toughest job in the world.
"You need to be ready for anything - especially now, with two wars, oil prices skyrocketing and an economy in crisis.
"Harry Truman said it best - if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
"Who do you think has what it takes?
"I'm Hillary Clinton and I approve this message."
With some help from Obama, Clinton has been putting together a package redolent of historic 'wedge' issues -- Willie Horton, Dukakis and the M-I tank, Kerry windsurfing, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
The Democrats have huge advantages going into the 2008 election: a discredited Bush administration, continued distrust of Republicans in Congress, a teetering economy, and an unpopular war. The party may well be able to survive the current debate and take the White House on January 20, 2009, but the backward-looking wedge issue strategy poses risks.
Clinton has been the driving force in pushing the campaign rightward, but Obama has been complicit in his own way, as his faltering answers to questions on these subjects have served to keep them alive.
Six months ago, on October 4, 2007, Obama dealt with a question about his decision not to wear a flag pin on his lapel deftly and forthrightly.
"You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin....Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we're talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest... Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
During the April 16 ABC debate in Philadelphia, however, his answer to a similar question was long, hesitant, and convoluted -- a 388 word "blood in the water" answer, the kind that attracts sharks:
"Well, look, I revere the American flag. And I would not be running for president if I did not revere this country. This is -- I would not be standing here if it wasn't for this country. And I've said this -- again, there's no other country in which my story is even possible. Somebody who was born to a teenage mom, raised by a single mother and grandparents from small towns in Kansas, you know, who was able to get an education and rise to the point where I can run for the highest office in the land, I could not help but love this country for all that it's given me.
And so, what I've tried to do is to show my patriotism by how I treat veterans when I'm working in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; by making sure that I'm speaking forcefully about how we need to bring this war in Iraq to a close, because I think it is not serving our national security well and it's not serving our military families and our troops well; talking about how we need to restore a sense of economic fairness to this country, because that's what this country has always been about, is providing upward mobility and ladders to opportunity for all Americans.
That's what I love about this country. And so I will continue to fight for those issues. And I am absolutely confident that during the general election, that when I'm in a debate with John McCain, people are not going to be questioning my patriotism; they are going to be questioning, how can you make people's lives a little bit better? And let me just make one last point on this issue of the flag pin. As you've noted, I wore one yesterday when a veteran handed it to me, who himself was disabled and works on behalf of disabled veterans.
I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins. This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander-in-chief, which is going to be figuring out how we get our troops out of Iraq and how we actually make our economy better for the American people."
The constellation of issues that Clinton has been raising -- and that Obama, in varying degrees, has been vulnerable on -- establish dominant campaign themes that have proven ideal for Republicans over the past 40 years (think of Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004). In each of those elections, a crucial demographic group leading the charge to GOP victory was white men.
With only minor differences between Obama and Clinton this year on such pro-Democratic subjects as health care, public sector investment and tax policy, Clinton has felt compelled to make the case that Obama would be a fatally flawed nominee in the general election.
To do so, she and her aides have pounded relentlessly on Obama's liabilities among conservative and centrist voters.
The Clinton forces have stressed the statements of Obama's preacher, Jeremiah Wright; Obama's cocaine use in his youth; the support he received from former members of the 1970s Weather Underground; his failure to wear an American flag; and his 'disparaging' comments on the religious and moral views of small town Pennsylvanians.
In Monday's Christian Science Monitor reporter Linda Feldmann wrote:
"The holy grail of the final push for votes in Pennsylvania: white male Democrats. As a group, they are nearly evenly divided between Senator Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. And individually, white male Democrats express the most ambivalence about the two candidates.
"A recent poll from Temple University in Philadelphia asked likely Democratic voters to rate the favorability of Clinton and Obama on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most favorable. The contest was closest among white men who gave Clinton an average of 6.4 and Obama 6.9. When only voters over 30 are considered, the numbers get even tighter: 6.5 for Clinton and 6.7 for Obama.
"Pennsylvania's white women, in contrast, clearly are more enthusiastic about Clinton. They give her an average favorability of 7.8, versus 5.9 for Obama."
Insofar as the Democratic contest remains focused on these issues, white men, a driving force in the seven Republican victories out of the last 10 presidential elections, will once again become a -- if not the -- crucial constituency in determining the outcome.
The prominent role of more centrist and conservative white men in the Democratic primary process is confounding to some. Just last year, Democratic political scientist Thomas F. Schaller was breathing a sigh of relief over the prospect that white men were a steadily diminishing factor in the political landscape.
In an essay titled "So long, white boy" published September 17, 2007 on Salon, Schaller wrote:
"The Democratic obsession with the down-home, blue-collar, white male voter, that heartbreaker who crossed the aisle to the Republicans many decades ago, may finally be coming to a merciful end....it's a waste of time and resources for the Democrats to pursue them -- a classic sucker's bet....Democrats finally seem to realize that cultural contortionism in the pursuit of Bubba produces little more than smiles on the faces of Republican consultants."
Two other Democratic analysts, Ruy Teixeira of the Brookings Institution and Emory University's Alan Abramowitz, both agreed that the white working-class vote, both male and female, is declining as a share of the electorate. But that does not mean, they note, that these voters can be cast aside:
"Al Gore...lost white working class voters in the 2000 election by 17 points. And the next Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, did even worse, losing these voters by a whopping 23 points in 2004," wrote Abramowitz and Teixeira in a paper titled "The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class."
"[T]hose voters who seem to correspond most closely to one's intuitive sense of the heart of the white working class -- that is, white voters who have a modest income and are non-college-educated -- are precisely the voters among whom Democrats did most poorly. For example, among non-college-educated whites with $30,000-$50,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by 24 points (62-38); among college-educated whites at the same income level, Kerry actually managed at 49-49 tie. And among non-college-educated whites with $50,000-$75,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by a shocking 41 points (70-29), while leading by only 5 points (52-47) among college-educated whites at the same income level."
Now, in the midst of the 2008 Democratic primary, white men have once again emerged as a crucial, if not key, constituency in the presidential election - a foreboding development for the prospects for Democrats in November.