By William Rabbe on 04/20/2008
Everybody has now heard about Barack Obama's recent statements about lower-income voters of Pennsylvania "clinging" to religion or guns because they are "bitter." And it's likely that everyone has heard the legnthy criticisms of the statements, coming from Clinton or perhaps more radically, from Bill Kristol.
"He's an elitist!" "He's out of touch!" "His claims are Marxist!"
The idea behind the critique is that behind closed doors, Obama has disdain for the very people who he needs to vote for him on Tuesday.
As Monica Crowley aptly pointed out this morning on the McLaughlin Group, "he's running as the transcendental post-racial hope-guy" -- so how could the hope guy mean this? And how can he get back on message?
Yes, it has been easy for many to cry foul and to claim that Obama has deeply offended voters -- but those saying this are mostly partisans stirring the pot of controversy, hoping the electorate will become equally indignant by power of osmosis. So far it hasn't, or at least the polls haven't shown a significant impact.
The Obama camp, perhaps better aware of the data, doesn't seem to put that much emphasis on damage control -- at least not of the scale of the effort after the Rev. Wright controversy. But while no speech similar to the "More Perfect Union" address has been forthcoming, the Senator has clarified himself in careful steps that could predicate his broader campaign strategy on the topic: he used the opportunity to decry "wedge issues" as a campaign tactic.
As he explained in the recent ABC debate: "Wedge issues, hot-button issues, end up taking prominence in our politics... and part of the problem is that when those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it's health care or education or jobs."
Obama's best explanation of his recent controversial statements is that he is cautious about voters falling victim to wedge issue politics... a nice defense. But what exactly is a wedge issue?
A wedge issue is considered a hot-button issue thrust into the political dialogue by a campaign in an effort to divide it's opponent's coalition. Used properly, it can be a brilliant way to effectively keep an opponent on the defensive, while also maintaining higher ground on the issue at hand. For example, remember Gay Marriage?
John Kerry suffered immeasurably from the tactic when the topic of gay marriage was debated in 2004. Both candidates were opposed to it, but George Bush was more fervent in his opposition -- he wanted to amend the constitution to define marriage only as that between a man and a woman. John Kerry didn't want to go as far as to amend the founding documents. Yet at the persistence of Bush's effective campaigning on the issue, gay marriage haunted John Kerry and gave voters the impression he wasn't against gay marriage as strongly as he should have been.
It was a red herring. Gay marriage vanished from the political dialogue following the election. But it helped do the job: it took John Kerry off-message and forced him to disavow positions that he had never considered advocating in the first place.
Now, no such issues have been used in 2008 so far, but It appears that Barack Obama is parleying this controversy and his bad choice of words into an opportunity to bring the tactic to the forefront of the dialogue -- in effect he's explaining that he meant: the issue isn't guns or religion, it's the economy and don't let discussion about the former distract from the latter.
Now, if he was really trying to put the issues of god and guns to rest he could have used more politic words originally, but in the meantime the strategy of shifting the debate to a discussion of wedge issues is the best he has. If the controversy continues, expect his message to couple his clarification with a warning: "Be careful of wedge issues that will arise -- they will distort my positions and distract the conversation."