Some Thoughts on Authenticity

This is much too big a topic for a single blog post, but it’s brought to mind by CNN’s account of a press conference that Hillary Clinton gave in Pennsylvania today:

After a weekend spent making direct appeals to gun owners and church goers, Hillary Clinton said Sunday a query about the last time she fired a gun or attended church services “is not a relevant question in this debate” over Barack Obama’s recent comments on small town Americans.

“We can answer that some other time,” Clinton said at a press conference held in a working class neighborhood here. “This is about what people feel is being said about them. I went to church on Easter. I mean, so?”

When voters size up candidates’ positions on the issues, there are often two different points of reference. The first is whether the politician promises to advance or to hinder a particular policy position that the voter favors. The second, less concrete but often more important, is whether the politician is “one of us.” Most voters, entirely reasonably, want to vote for someone who generally shares their values and world-view. This gives some assurance that, whatever issues may arise in the coming years, and however well or poorly the voter may understand the intricacies of those issues, the candidate will be approaching them from a sympathetic perspective.

The neutron bomb that Barack Obama unleashed in San Francisco bore on both of these methods of evaluation. To some degree, his candid assessment of Pennsylvania voters shed light on how he might handle particular issues. He said, for example, that opposition to free trade is one of the symptoms of blue collar “bitterness.” This suggests that his opposition to free trade might not be as sincere as some voters would wish.

Mostly, though, Obama’s sneering attitude toward religion, gun ownership and concern about illegal immigration showed that, for many Pennsylvanians, he is not “one of them.” The problem that faces Hillary Clinton as she tries to take advantage of Obama’s moment of candor is that, in terms of authenticity, she has little or nothing on her opponent. Like Obama, she was a strong advocate of gun control earlier in her career. And the flash of resentment she showed when asked when she last attended church shows how unable, or unwilling, she is to be “one of them” when it comes to religious life.

Today, Clinton seemed to acknowledge that on cultural issues she is no more in tune with rural Pennsylvanians than Obama. Instead, she presented herself as someone not dumb enough to say what she really thinks, and thereby give ammunition to the Republicans:

Clinton described the furor surrounding Obama’s remarks as “about how people look at the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party leadership.”

“We have been working very hard to make it clear that we have millions of Democrats who are church going and gun-owning,” she said. “And we are tired of having Republicans, or frankly our own Democrats, give any ammunition to Republicans because what happens then is Republicans take advantage of the situation.” ***

Pressed on whether she truly believes Obama is an elitist, Clinton called him “a good man,” but recalled the narratives of the 2000 and 2004 president election.

“You don’t have to think back too far to remember that good men running for president were viewed as being elitist and out of touch with the values and lives of millions of Americans,” she said.

In other words, Clinton doesn’t pretend to be more genuinely in tune with rural Pennsylvania voters than Obama; she promises to less obviously inauthentic. Which is not a very inspiring message on which to premise her campaign.