Andrew Clark: Up against the Republican machine

After Barack Obama’s loss in Tuesday night’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary, it seems that God-fearing and gun-loving Pennsylvanians aren’t the ones who are bitter. Pennsylvania’s rejection of Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) is invariably making the presidential candidate rue the candor he had at that San Francisco dinner last week. But in that moment of honesty as well as its aftermath, Obama revealed just how hopelessly out-of-touch Democrats really are with middle America.

While Obama’s comments were certainly appalling, watching the Democratic armada flood the airwaves over the last week desperately trying to defend his comments was even worse. The Democrats are clueless when it comes to these kinds of label wars, and their reaction over the past week proves it.

We are all familiar with how it goes. The Republicans charge the Democrats with being out-of-touch, rich, elitist progressives who look down condescendingly on middle America’s lifestyle. This has been their narrative for years, and it usually ends up working very successfully. John Kerry and his 2004 campaign, Al Gore and his climate change efforts and countless congressional Democrats all have become casualties of the “elitist” label (they even succeeded at casting John Edwards, whose entire campaign revolved around helping the poor, as an elitist with his $400 haircut).

These labels can easily be fought against if you know the rules of the game. But as is evident through the Obama camp’s feeble response last week, it’s extremely difficult to count the glitter and jazz of that original headline. Yes, this is a world that feeds on image and story, not facts. And as such, the definition of elitist has changed – it no longer means simply ‘extremely wealthy.’

That’s why Republicans have been so successful in calling Kerry an elitist because of his comments last year that only uneducated people join the army. That’s why they’ve been so successful in discrediting Gore because of his energy-sucking mansion and oil-slurping private airplane. And that’s why the Republicans probably will be so successful in casting Obama as an elitist this November.

But if Obama does fall victim to his own words in the face of GOP challenges, the Republicans should not to be blamed. In fact, the GOP will be doing a crucial service to the American people by calling on Obama to address the concerns of Americans hesitant to speak up for fear of being labeled “bitter.” It’s important that someone in this nation challenge the one presidential candidate who up until last week’s fumble, the press has seemingly refused to attack.

But for any political junkie who loves a spirited political fight, the question is: how can the Democrats step up their game? Are they going to start fighting off the elitist label machine, or are they going to subject themselves to another generation of political defeats?

First off, they need to tread carefully and watch what they say. Anything that sounds even remotely like the opponent’s label needs to be cut out. Second, the Democrats need to sit down with their pollsters and strategists and conjure two new labels – one to cast on themselves, and one to stamp on their opponents.

This election is about image, and the strangest of details matter. It appears Democrats simply do not understand that. They can be as outraged and shocked as they want by the elitist charge, but at the end of the day, reality does not matter in this game. It’s all about the narrative, and so far Obama has played into it perfectly.

The writer, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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