10/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans Revive "Bittergate," Dems Flounder

In the two main convention speeches Wednesday night -- the big night, Sarah Palin night -- the Republican Party revived a major theme of the Clinton primary campaign and made it a centerpiece of the general election, turning what was a contest between candidates, parties, and arguably genders, into one between cultures. And, in a telephonic press conference the next morning designed to counter vice presidential nominee Palin's well-delivered speech, the Democratic National Committee failed to rise to the challenge, trotting out female Obama supporters to fight yesterday's policy and gender wars instead of the new, gender-neutral, policy-empty culture war the Republicans have unleashed.

The DNC spokespeople floundered on Wednesday morning's call, inadequately answering reporters' questions about Palin's true constituency: heartland voters, not women. In a single speech, Sarah Palin has successfully reframed this election, as one between the hunters and hockey moms on one side, who can still be riled up by the word "bitter" and who have found a champion in Palin and, on the other side, the clueless urban elites whom Republicans associate with Obama.

The centerpiece of this shift is "Bittergate," the story broken last April by OffTheBus citizen journalist Mayhill Fowler and hammered home by Hillary Clinton during the final phases of the Democratic primary. "Bitter" is now the defining Republican frame, and a powerful one. And so far, the Democrats have not been nimble enough to respond with a new frame of their own.

Readers can skip directly to discussion and audio of this morning's conference call here, but it makes more sense if put into historical context:

A History of "Bittergate": At a private fundraiser in San Francisco last April, a campaign volunteer bound for a rural state asked Obama what to expect. Obama - not making a grand, dismissive statement about "rednecks" but trying to give one individual volunteer some insight into people's lives, based on Obama's own experiences talking with rural voters, told him:

"[I]t depends on where you are, but I think it's fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people feel most cynical about government. *** 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 (laughter).

But -- so the questions you're most likely to get about me, 'Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What's the concrete thing?' What they wanna hear is -- so, we'll give you talking points about what we're proposing -- close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama's gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we're gonna provide health care for every American. So we'll go down a series of talking 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. 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.

Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you'll find is, is that people of every background -- there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you'll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I'd be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you're doing what you're doing."

That's not a condescending put-down delivered in a mid-Atlantic accent to a bunch of champagne-sipping tasseled-loafer-wearers; it's a heartfelt explanation of the realities of life in much of America. And there's nothing untrue in Obama's description of the raw deal small-town America has gotten under the pro-corporate crony capitalism of the Republican Party and Democratic Leadership Council Democrats like the Clintons. Bruce Springsteen sings what Obama said: "foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back / To your home town," and if people there aren't exactly "bitter" about it, they are at least pissed off. If they don't "cling" to guns and religion, they certainly do turn to hunting and faith for solace and for reassurance that some things are still simple and good. The rise of dishonest demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly proves that sometimes good people can be talked into blaming minorities or immigrants for problems that, in reality, have been foisted upon them by uncaring elites who look a lot more like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly than they do like Barack Obama. Substitute better-chosen synonyms and add the context that Obama's listeners already understood, and Obama's statement in San Francisco would have become a rallying cry.

Obama tried to explain this shortly after the story broke:

"When I go around and I talk to people there is frustration and there is anger and there is bitterness... [In San Francisco] I said, Well look, they're frustrated and for good reason. Because for the last 25 years they've seen jobs shipped overseas. They've seen their economies collapse. They have lost their jobs. They have lost their pensions. They have lost their healthcare.

And for 25, 30 years Democrats and Republicans have come before them and said we're going to make your community better. We're going to make it right and nothing ever happens. And of course they're bitter. Of course they're frustrated. You would be too. In fact many of you are. Because the same thing has happened here in Indiana. The same thing happened across the border in Decatur. The same thing has happened all across the country. Nobody is looking out for you. Nobody is thinking about you. And so people end up -- they don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody's going to help them. So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington. So I made this statement-- so, here's what rich. Senator Clinton says 'No, I don't think that people are bitter in Pennsylvania. You know, I think Barack's being condescending.' John McCain says, 'Oh, how could he say that? How could he say people are bitter? You know, he's obviously out of touch with people.'

'Out of touch? Out of touch? I mean, John McCain--it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he's saying I'm out of touch? ... No, I'm in touch. I know exactly what's going on. I know what's going on in Pennsylvania. I know what's going on in Indiana. I know what's going on in Illinois. People are fed-up. They're angry and they're frustrated and they're bitter. And they want to see a change in Washington and that's why I'm running for President of the United States of America."

But Hillary Clinton -- the Wellesley and Yale grad who was born and raised in Chicago, lives in New York, and wears what one female journalist, in the privacy of the press bus toward the end of a long day during the primary campaign in Oregon, dismissively called "Ferragamos - kicky, kicky little Ferragamos" -- was quick to take Obama's words out of context and use them, with inexplicable success, to recast herself as a populist:

"I saw in the media it's being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter. Well, that's not my experience," Clinton told a Drexel University crowd in Philadelphia. "As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard everyday for a better future, for themselves and their children. Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them, they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families," she said.

McCain, of course, was quick to reprise Clinton. Almost immediately Steve Schmidt, a McCain adviser, said Obama's comments showed that he viewed rural Americans with "contempt" and said his description:

"shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking. It is hard to imagine someone running for president of the United States who is more out of touch with average Americans."

And thus was Obama, who began his adult life working nights in church basements to help out-of-work steelworkers in the dying brown industrial belt that squats for miles between Chicago's South Side and the rusting lakefront mills of Gary, Indiana, cast as an elitist who looked down on working folks. That's "Bittergate."

Republicans Revive "Bittergate": Wednesday night, the Republicans returned to ground already cleared by Clinton, returning repeatedly to Obama's "bitter" comments. New Yorker Rudy Giuliani -- not exactly a deeply religious or even moral man, and certainly no small-towner -- said snidely:

I'm sorry -- I'm sorry that Barack Obama feels that her hometown isn't cosmopolitan enough. (Laughter.) (Altering tone of voice.) I'm sorry, Barack -- (laughter) -- that it's not flashy enough. (Laughter.) Maybe they cling to religion there. (Cheers, applause.) Ooh. (Extended cheers and applause.)

And Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made it a major theme of her debut speech:

I might add -- I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they're listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening. (Cheers, applause.) No, we tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco. (Cheers, applause.)

The Dems Respond - Clumsily: As it does each morning, the Democratic National Committee held a press conference call early Thursday morning to respond to Wednesday night's Republican speeches, especially Palin's. The speakers included Obama campaign strategist Robert Gibbs, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, and Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Most of the call was unremarkable - just the Democrats pointing out the (multiple) factual misstatements and reprising their own policy positions. But in the Q&A following the speakers' presentations, reporters raised the "bitter" meme. Philip Dine of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked:

"A lot of the Democratic attack on Governor Palin is that she is unqualified ... as the mayor of a small town. Doesn't [that line of attack] allow her, as she did last night, to talk about - to posture herself as the defender of small town America, the very people Barack Obama disparaged in San Francisco?"

Kansas' governor Kathleen Sebelius tried to answer, and started well:

I live in America's hearthland and have been governor here for six years and I don't think there's any question that there are small towns ... and often people people in our rural communities feel neglected. I don't think there's also any question that the ticket that's reaching out to those folks across this country is the Obama-Biden ticket....

But Sebelius then broke off into a somewhat rambling discussion of renewable energy and cellulosic ethanol and clean coal and job creation -- the kinds of wonkish policy prescriptions that are exactly what small town America desperately needs, and that those who responded viscerally to Sarah Palin last night don't actually care very much about. And Sebelius then played right into the Republicans' hands, describing Palin as a savvy politician who knows how to bring home the pork - something that all Americans, including rural ones and especially including Alaskans (who, in general, are as committed to extracting dollars from the Lower 48 as they are to extracting oil from the North Slope), decry in principle but love passionately in any politician who can do it for them:

I don't know any mayor in any small town in Kansas ... who hires a lobbyist and goes after earmarks the way Sarah Palin did. So I think there's a little bit of a disconnect between her positioning herself as a typical small town mayor and the way she conducted business in that small town. That isn't a reform strategy, that's an inside Washington strategy."

Yes, Palin's lobbyist brought $27 million in taxpayer dollars to her town of 8,000 people -- over $3,000 in Lower 48-funded pork per person! -- but that fact will just make a lot of rural people everywhere think, "damn, she's good!"

An agitated Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, frustrated to her soul about the danger and idiocy of the Republicans' choice and struggling to get her brain around the reality that the Republicans really just don't care, then chimed in with more completely accurate but still unhelpful logic, playing into the Republican memes about experience and terror (which hurt Obama more than they do McCain-Palin). In her angst, she even made a telling Freudian slip:

"We're talking about someone who's been governor of a state that is smaller than my Congressional district for less than twenty months, and, you know, to equate her experience as mayor of a town of 8,000 people, with a budget of about $12 million, who was elected with about 1100 votes, and then subsequently has been governor of a state with 600 some-odd thousand people, that that makes her qualified to have her hand on the tiller of America's foreign policy in the event that God forbid anything happens to John McCain? I mean, to suggest that is - it's frightening. I mean, really, what if something happens to John McCain? What relevant experience does Sarah Palin have to be able to sit across the conference table, negotiators, with the prime ministers and presidents of this world? I mean, as the McCain campaign constantly reminds us, this is a dangerous world. We're fighting a war on terror ... It's astonishing, and clear from Governor Palin's remarks last night and her performance the last several days, that because of her lack of experience she didn't know how to lay out her vision for America domestically ... and she has absolutely no foreign policy experience whatsoever, as opposed to Barack Obama and John McCain, who have - excuse me, Barack Obama and Joe Biden...."

Then Wasserman-Schultz, like Sebelius, slanted off into a policy-oriented discussion of tax cuts, troop withdrawal, health care, alternative energy research, and foreign policy.

A little later in the call, Jim O'Toole, politics editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, put his finger right on the Democrats' problem - their "programmatic" rather than "visceral" responses to Palin's "empathetic" approach last night - but the Democrats didn't even seem to understand what he meant:

O'Toole: I'm struck that your rebuttals to Governor Palin's remarks and the other speakers' are all pretty programmatic, and that's fine as far as it goes, but are you concerned that you have - people vote for President partially on visceral reasons too. Are you concerned that you have a kind of an image problem, kind of a narrative problem, in responding to the kind of ... empathetic messages that they put forward last night?

Gibbs: What exact - what empathetic messages? I may have missed those. [laughing.]

O'Toole: Well, the very familiar attacks on, as another questioner mentioned, Senator Obama's 'bitter' remarks."

Gibbs then answered adequately, reminding O'Toole of McCain's forgetting how many homes he owns and a McCain adviser's description of Americans as "whiners," but returning again to policy, policy, policy.

Analysis: The Democrats Aren't Playing The "Frame Game": Watching the Republican Convention, I'm struck by how deeply different the people on my screen are from the people I saw at the Democratic Convention in Denver last week. Both groups care about their communities and their countries enough to become involved in the political process. Both are excited about their candidates and their parties. Both are engrossed by the sport and spectacle of politics. But, contrary to Republican spin, I didn't see any blind worship of Obama at the Dem convention; rather, I saw mostly geeks and policy wonks, people parsing the factual details of every speaker's spiel, people who actually paid attention to the differences between Clinton's and Obama's health care plans and who know, as soon as they hear it, exactly how and why McCain's claims about Obama's plan to "raise taxes" on them are untrue.

At the Republican convention, on the other hand, I hear entire speeches compiled of bumper sticker slogans (some of them very good). I hear clever-sounding but meaningless lines that haven't been changed since the Presidential campaign in 1964 (Fred Thompson: "They say they are not going to take any water out of your side of the bucket, just the 'other' side of the bucket!"). I hear flat-out lies, like speaker after speaker talking about how liberal Washington is (after 6-8 years of Republican dominance of all three branches of government) and promising to allow individuals more choice (McCain and Palin favor a Constitutional amendment banning abortion).

Most importantly, though, I see a crowd mesmerized by those slogans and truisms and lies. They love it. They eat it up. Most don't know they're being lied to -- but even those who do, don't mind; for them, it's not about facts, it's about feelings.

A former client of mine, who ran a construction company in Anchorage, once told me that no one is as sensitive as Alaska ironworkers; he always had to be careful not to hurt their feelings or they'd quit and storm off in a huff. That's a good description of many Republicans, in my experience: physically tough, but they do tear up at those sad country songs. Or, as Stephen Colbert brilliantly put it, it's about truthiness: "The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you."

U.C. Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, in his indispensable book Don't Think Of An Elephant, explains how people think in "frames" or worldviews through which all ideas and emotions are processed. Liberals tend to have a more nurturing worldview - and, I'd add, a more logical one; we're more left-brained. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to have a more rigid, rule-based, punitive worldview - what Lakoff calls a "strict father" frame - but, I'll add, also a more emotional, right-brained one, with the primary emotion being fear: the fear of getting in trouble when daddy gets home, or the corresponding ecstasy when he does and he's not mad.

But, of course, most people are both. We're all somewhat logical; we're all subject to emotion. The fabled "swing voter" could be conceptualized as someone in whom the two worldviews are almost equally dominant. And so, of course, both sides will resort to both logical and emotional appeals to reach those voters, but with Democrats leaning toward logic and Republicans leaning toward emotion: "here's our 27-point tax plan" vs. "Bin Laden wants to kill you!"

Then there are the more specific frames, the particular, topical stories or myths, laid on top of those larger approaches. Until last night, the Republican myth was, "It's a scary world, Obama's young and inexperienced, and McCain is the tough father figure who will care for you." And Obama's frame was, "This place you're at now is scary bad. You need to get away. McCain wants to keep you here, but I'll lead you to safety." And Obama was winning in that "battle of frames."

Wednesday night, though, the Republican Party unexpectedly changed frames - and did so brilliantly. The agent of change was Sarah Palin, who suddenly has become the most dangerous person to the progressive agenda since Ronald Reagan himself. Through Palin, the frame has now become, "The government doesn't understand you or like you. That's why it's hurting you so badly. Come to Tough Hockey Mommy and I'll make them go away."

And how did the Obama team respond Thursday? With, "Here are our policy prescriptions for creating rural jobs through national investment in alternative fuels research."

What O'Toole, the insightful Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor, was asking, is this: how's that policy prescription approach gonna work for you, against Tough Hockey Mommy?

Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz at least understood the question, but she's betting all her money on the dubious proposition that voters ultimately will vote logic over emotion, explaining (in response to O'Toole) that while her constituents respect her personal story as a mom who bore all three of her children while in office, they reelect her because of her position on issues like reproductive choice and stem cell research. Toward the end of the second audio above, she predicted that "when you look beneath the layers of the surface issues of her [Palin] being a mom, the women voters and voters across the country are going to see that there's just no there there."

I'd like to think she's right - but I don't. A lot of voters will vote logic, and thus Democratic. A lot will vote emotion; they're almost all lost to the Republican side. But there are a whole lot who vote both - and to leave out the emotional component, to fail to see and respond to the new Republican frame, is to throw the race. The logical, policy-wonk concepts that actually have the potential to revive small-town America are what Obama will need to actually govern - but to be elected, Democrats also need to appeal to the parts of the brain that Sarah Palin appealed to Wednesday night. This election is both a logical policy contest and, as Jay Rosen presciently pointed out before last night's debate in a must-read post, a highly emotional culture war. Democrats need to fight on both fronts.

I don't know the best way for the Obama campaign to respond to the new Palin hockey-mommy frame. I suspect that part of the solution rests on Hillary Clinton's shoulders - not because she's a woman, but because (to her shame) she largely created the "bittergate" meme that the Republicans are relying on, and so she (to her credit) can credibly help dismantle it. Whatever the new Obama game plan is, however, this election now hinges on whether the Democrats recognize that the frame has changed -- and whether they can change with it.