Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's the Matter With MontCo?
Flipping on my computer Tuesday night between the Phillies game and the Pennsylvania primary returns, I kept waiting for Montgomery County, where I grew up right outside Philadelphia, to flip from blue (Clinton) to green (Obama). It never happened: though Clinton's ultimate margin was tiny--50.7 percent to 49.3 percent, around 2,200 votes--she held it, and the Clintons' unexpected success in the supposedly pro-Obama 'burbs, with their high median income and plentiful college grads, probably explains why they won by 9.2 percent and get to continue the Become What We Hate Tour, rather than, say, 5 percent and home to their own private dysfunction.

Philadelphia Inquirer political columnist/blogger Daniel Rubin went out to Montgomery to ask what happened:

"I voted for Hillary," said the first person I ran into, Shelley Goodman, a 53-year-old psychologist walking her coonhound, Blue.

"I don't think this country is ready for a black president." This again.

Goodman has adopted or fostered a household of mixed-race children, and so she is speaking from a giant heart.

"In this country, you are not half-black," she went on. "If you are any black, you are all black. We have a very skewed view in the East Coast. We think everyone thinks as open-mindedly as we do."
I found a balance of opinions at a home in Melrose Park, where twin signs sprout from the front yard, one for Hillary, one for Obama.
Inside, Linda Riley and her husband, Carl Rotenberg, sat in separate armchairs, parsing the results. Riley, the Obama supporter, relayed a recent conversation with a Jewish woman at the Philadelphia Council for the Aging. "She was concerned Obama would not protect Israel," said Riley, 57. "I don't know what he could do to assuage that concern, as he has said he would support Israel, is a friend of Israel. I guess it is not enough."
I reached Art Matusow by phone. He ran canvassing for Obama in Lower Merion and Narberth. Matusow said he'd been asking his door-knockers whether they'd seen support soften since Obama was hammered for calling some Pennsylvanians "bitter," for not wearing a flag on his lapel, and for the incendiary comments of his former pastor.

Matusow talked of two counties, the progressive inner suburbs like Cheltenham and Lower Merion, and the more rural and blue-collar places farther from the city.

He heard nothing, he said, to suggest voters were wary of Obama's race, but said some people did come into his office concerned about Israel's safety. The campaign had armed workers with pamphlets to try to quell the fears. "It is an area where Israel matters," Matusow said, "so I'm not going to say it is a nonissue."

Both my parents--my mom, a huge pro-Clinton Democrat, and my dad, a nominal Republican (I think) who generally votes for the Democrat on the presidential level--have raised this Israel question with me in conversation or e-mail. My mom, who flashes uncanny political astuteness once a year or so, actually predicted that the exchange about Israel in that disgrace of a debate last week would redound hugely to Hillary's advantage.

I guess it did. But I think the real story here is that upscale voters can be as attuned to "dog-whistle politics" as those church-going, gun-loving, salt-of-the-earth types before whom the mainstream media simultaneously venerates and sneers.

Clinton's formulation, that Israel was under the American nuclear umbrella and that any attack by Iran on the Jewish state would result in its "obliteration," might strike some as irresponsible or immoral. Obama's--that "all options would be on the table"--is much more in keeping with the tradition of strategic ambiguity around nuclear deterrence. (It also takes into account, at least implicitly, that Israel has a far larger nuclear arsenal than Iran ever will; if anyone is going to be doing the "obliterating" there, it'll be Israel.)

But from growing up around these people, having some idea how they think, I'm pretty sure that Obama misread or simply didn't understand the politics around this question.

The point is that when it comes to Israel among these folks, emotion trumps logic. The Clintons get this; Hillary (or Bill, which is the same diff in this context) understood that to the secular Jews of Montgomery County, belligerent rhetoric around Israel is a signifier of a larger worldview. That it's irrational--who the hell talks about "obliterating" anyone?--is actually the point: Israel is the one thing these folks actively choose to be irrational about. (The only time my late grandmother, probably the finest and gentlest person I've ever known, ever scared me was when she talked about how much she hated Arafat.)

That she did this against a man of color is an important point as well. I've read Obama's statements about Israel, the things my dad sent me. He's solidly in the mainstream in terms of America's relationship with the only Middle East democracy. But, as is his wont, he refuses to dumb it down beyond a certain point. And he does have relationships with people whom, I promise you, the decent folk of Montgomery County view as Scary Black Men: Wright directly, and Farrakkhan by (unfair) association. Because he's an honorable man, Obama doesn't throw Wright all the way over the side--and the Clintons, unburdened by honor, exploit that indirectly.

The people I grew up with certainly aren't "racist" in the Bull Connor sense, or even the Patrick Buchanan sense. But they are susceptible to indirect racist appeals--and "the black guy won't protect Israel as ferociously as I will" counts as one of those. This isn't the only issue where such an appeal can be made, triggering some lower-level or comparative ("he's just not enough like me in how he thinks") prejudice; I'm not sure how Obama pushes back against this.


The Navigator said...

Hard-core non-rational attachments to Israel go well beyond MontCo, of course: I still remember talking to a Jewish woman from Montreal in my dorm freshman year at Brown, and being amazed when she said that the only place in the world she felt truly safe was in Israel. This was, IIRC, during the intifada! And she was from Canada! And she did not mean in some hypothetical Israel at peace with its neighbors - she meant right then, in current-day Israel.

It struck me as sort of akin to an Irish-American from Philly saying that he'd only feel truly safe in Belfast (pre-Good Friday agreement). I do realize that the cases aren't exaclty alike - there's no long, worldwide history of pogroms, the Holocaust, etc. against the Irish. But there's no history of that sort against the Jews in Montreal, either. Objectively speaking, you were, and are, much more likely to be targeted as a Jew in Israel then in Canada. But there you go - no accounting for her feelings.

Chris said...

Wait, that first lady voted against Obama because she thinks other people might vote against Obama?

HUH? What kind of reason to vote for someone is that?

This is what we are dealing with folks. It's all about politicking and not at all about policy or legislating.

David said...

Yeah, she's either a liar or an idiot.

It's increasingly clear to me that latent racism of the type I probably could have better described here (and racism less latent than what you'd see in a place like Elkins Park, where I grew up) could deny Obama the White House. But what the hell: given that I'm much more sure that Clinton would lose and that I think she's a moral sinkhole anyway, I'd rather try and fail with Obama than not try.