Let’s face it. Hillary Clinton is scarcely an obvious working class hero. But over the past few months she has forged a bond with blue collar and middle class voters which Barack Obama cannot even begin to emulate – that’s according to ex-West Wing insider Sidney Blumenthal.
In an interview with newstatesman.com, the man who stood by President Bill Clinton through thick and thin, warned that the Democratic candidate who fails to win the hearts of the American working and middle classes will fail to enter the White House.
Now on Hillary’s campaign team, Blumenthal says it is her struggle in the primaries and her fighting spirit have established an unexpected special bond between her and Middle America.
When the race began, she may have been seen as a more elitist figure, but her campaign has transformed into a fight on working and middle class issues.
“She has a tangible connection with them that she didn’t have before. She has very definite connections with these voters.”
Blumenthal, who has written extensively about the consequences of a Republican-dominated America and been an outspoken critic of Bush the younger, believes that the Democrats’ key failure in the latter part of the 20th century was an inability to reach and represent working people: “This is a central factor for the regeneration of the Democratic party,” adding they had come to be seen as “elitist”.
The Democrats were further stigmatised, particularly through the Reagan years, as less patriotic than the Republicans, and less competent with the economy – similar to the picture the Tories painted of the UK Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s. “The Clinton period was an effort to deal with these inherited problems and to reconstruct the centre left,” says Blumenthal.
The strength of Blumenthal’s conviction that Hillary should be the next Democratic candidate matches the strength — and waspishness — of his opinion that Barack Obama should not. For example, he dismisses Obama’s foreign experience as “I think he stopped in Britain once for a day”.
“Obama’s problem is, as a candidate he hasn’t really extended his support beyond his base as a state senator.” These supporters hail from liberal academia, the well-off young and African Americans, believes Blumenthal, who is not afraid to point the finger at Obama’s attitude to working class as “insulting”, plainly referring to comments during the Pennsylvania primary.
“His supporters may be fervent but they leave the centre of the party cold,” says Blumenthal.
Blumenthal says declaring Obama has won is also “premature” and “if he had already won then he wouldn’t need to make the claim”.
Blumenthal echoes Clinton’s unwillingness to quit the race, pointing to her wins in seven of eight big states and the votes of the “popular majority”.
That’s not to say Clinton and her supporters are unaware of just how big a rift there is between the two wings of the Democratic party, and what an effort it will entail to bridge this gap when, finally, a single candidate rises, battle-scarred, from the ashes of the campaign.
“There’s no consensus in this party. This is a unique situation” admits Blumenthal, and in case anyone thought that implied Clinton giving in and retiring hurt, he swiftly points out that the idea “that the consensus will magically surround Barack Obama is a fallacy”. But surely this is a difficulty faced by both candidates, whoever should takes the nomination? “Politically the Democratic Party does have a problem,” he admits.
Curiously, Blumenthal seems more riled about Obama than Republican candidate John McCain, “a genuine war hero”.
McCain’s individualism and his unwillingness to toe the party line “resonates deeply in the country”, says Blumenthal.
“Democrats will have to deal with him eventually, but first they have to deal with themselves,” says Blumenthal believes, unlike many commentators, that Democratic indecision has not given McCain a head start, because he “can’t focus on who his opponent is”. Others argue he is being given plenty of time to decide on his tactics while the eye of the media is trained on the Democratic storm.
“Patriotism and national security are still associated in the public mind with the Republicans more than the Democrats. This is more of a problem for Obama (than for Hillary).”
Blumenthal worked with Tony Blair on the Third Way concept but during our interview didn’t want to be drawn on the tasks that Gordon Brown currently faces. However, he did add that following a charismatic leader into office was always a challenge.
Nor has US foreign policy helped the occupants of Downing Street over the past eight years.
“There was a unique relationship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, I think that relationship was abused under George Bush. Bush used the UK to justify his policies and then dismissed the analysis, judgements and policy suggestions that came from the British government on everything from how to organise an international coalition and climate change to the Middle East, to how to deal with Iraq after the war.”
Blumenthal is just as happy to take aim at the media as well as the political elite. “Each time I think the US media has reached the bottom, it finds a new cellar.” He argues journalists “were indispensable as Bush’s instruments of disinformation”, and have now turned their fire on Hillary Clinton – “many of them are crudely misogynistic” and have “brazenly taken sides, in this case for Obama”.
Of course, Blumenthal, too, has taken sides. And in the dying days of a tightly fought war of words, this master of US political language is a good man to have as your lieutenant. Whether his championship will make a difference to Hillary Clinton is less clear.
The Strange Death of Republican America; Chronicles of a Collapsing Party, £14.99, by Sidney Blumenthal, is published on 1 June.