"This election," Bill Clinton said in the hours before the Pennsylvania primary, "is too big to be small." It was a noble sentiment, succinctly stated, and the core of what Democrats believe that George W. Bush has been a historic screwup as President, that there are huge issues to be confronted this year. But it was laughable as well. The Pennsylvania primary had been a six-week exercise in diminution, with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Bill Clinton too losing altitude and esteem on an almost daily basis. Even as he spoke, the former President was in the midst of a tiny, self-inflicted absurdity, having claimed in a radio interview that the Obama campaign had played the "race card" against him. And that was the least of the damage.
Hillary Clinton won a convincing victory in Pennsylvania, but it came at a significant cost to the Clinton family's reputation and to the Democratic Party. She won by throwing the "kitchen sink" at Obama, as her campaign aides described it. Her campaign had been an assault on Obama's character flaws, real and imagined, rather than on matters of substance. Clinton also suffered a bizarre self-inflicted wound, having reimagined her peaceful landing at a Bosnian airstrip in 1996 as a battlefield scene complete with sniper fire. After six weeks of this, according to one poll, 60% of the American people considered her "untrustworthy," a Nixonian indictment.
But that was nothing compared with the damage done to Obama, who entered the primary as a fresh breeze and left it stale, battered and embittered still the mathematical favorite for the nomination but no longer the darling of his party. In the course of six weeks, the American people learned that he was a member of a church whose pastor gave angry, anti-American sermons, that he was "friendly" with an American terrorist who had bombed buildings during the Vietnam era, and that he seemed to look on the ceremonies of working-class life bowling, hunting, churchgoing and the fervent consumption of greasy food as his anthropologist mother might have, with a mixture of cool detachment and utter bemusement. All of which deepened the skepticism that Caucasians, especially those without a college degree, had about a young, inexperienced African-American guy with an Islamic-sounding name and a highfalutin fluency with language. And worse, it raised questions among the elders of the party about Obama's ability to hold on to crucial Rust Belt bastions like Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey in the general election and to add long-suffering Ohio to the Democratic column.
Yes, yes, the bulk of the sludge was caricature, and some of it, especially the stuff circulating on the Internet, was scurrilous trash. But there is an immutable pedestrian reality to American politics: you have to get the social body language right if you want voters to consider the nobler reaches of your message. In his 1991 book, The Reasoning Voter, political scientist Samuel Popkin argued that most people make their choice on the basis of "low-information signaling" that is, stupid things like whether you know how to roll a bowling ball or wear an American-flag pin. In the era of Republican dominance, the low-information signals were really low how Michael Dukakis looked in a tanker's helmet, whether John Kerry's favorite sports were too precious (like wind-surfing), whether Al Gore's debate sighs over his opponent's simple obfuscations were patronizing. Bill Clinton was the lone Democratic master of low-information signaling a love of McDonald's and other assorted big-gulp appetites gave him credibility that even trumped his evasion of military service.
The audacity of the Obama campaign was the belief that in a time of trouble as opposed to the peace and prosperity of the late 20th century the low-information politics of the past could be tossed aside in favor of a high-minded, if deliberately vague, appeal to the nation's need to finally address some huge problems. But that assumption hit a wall in Pennsylvania. Specifically, it hit a wall at the debate staged by ABC News in Philadelphia viewed by an audience of 10 million, including a disproportionate number of Pennsylvanians that will go down in history for the relentless vulgarity of its questions, with the first 40 minutes focused exclusively on so-called character issues rather than policy. Obama was on the defensive from the start, but gradually the defensiveness morphed into bitter frustration. He kept his cool a very presidential character trait and allowed his disdain to show only when he was asked a question about his opponent's Bosnia gaffe. "Senator Clinton deserves the right to make some errors once in a while," he said. "What's important is to make sure that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history."