Sure, we like to be inspired by candidates, and goodness knows we've heard grandiloquence galore in this presidential campaign. But sometimes guilt works just as well. Or does it?
Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld all spread the stereotype of Jewish mamas managing their kids by ladling on the guilt. Now Barack Obama's acting like a bubbemeis. Polling poorly among an ironclad Democrat constituency with outsized media influence and financial clout, Obama told Jewish voters in Boca Raton, Florida, "Don't judge me because I've got a funny name; don't judge me because I'm African American." Oy vey! Talk about a guilt trip.
Trouble is, those Jews and other voters are not turning against Obama because he's black. A dirty little secret of this campaign is that many white voters, Democrat and Republican alike, would love to elect an African American. The African American conservative Shelby Steele writes about this in his book White Guilt. But Barack Obama, who entered this campaign almost completely unknown to most Americans, carries heavier baggage than, say, former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., or Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Apart from having far less experience, Senator Obama has been defined - fairly or not-in the minds of many voters as a 20 year congregant of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, as the husband of a woman steeped in racial grievances, as the beneficiary of fundraisers by unreconstructed terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, as the amateur sociologist who believes bitter people cling to guns and God, and as a candidate willing to meet dictators without preconditions - including dictators demanding Israel's destruction.
Hillary Clinton also has been laying on the guilt, complaining that she is the victim of sexism. Put aside the fact that jibes about Senator Clinton's sex are no more piercing than those about Senator McCain's age or Senator Obama's race. (It's hard to pinpoint the low point regarding Obama; perhaps when Clinton supporter Andrew Young said that Bill Clinton is "every bit as black as Barack, and he's probably gone with more black women." However, even many Democrats now believe Clinton crossed all lines by recently, for a second time, citing Bobby Kennedy's June 1968 assassination as a precedent for keeping campaigns going through June.)
More to the point, just as Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro said Obama would not be where he is if he weren't black, Hillary Clinton wouldn't be where she is if she weren't a woman and, more specifically, a former First Lady. While many women in politics benefit from nepotism, many others do not. Don't get me started yet again about Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir. Hillary Clinton's experience did not qualify her to manage health care reform in 1993, and it was a historic failure. By most objective measures - including the simple lack of residency - she was not well qualified to run for the Senate from New York, but that of course was for a majority of New Yorkers to decide. And her accomplishments on Capitol Hill hardly match those of fellow Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, much less House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But even the most experienced candidate can play the guilt card. John McCain usually recoils from recounting his harrowing five and a half years of torture in Hanoi. When Clinton supporter Gloria Steinem belittled the leadership qualities forged during that ordeal, McCain held his fire. But Washington insiders say that, while he respects Senator Clinton, McCain has very little respect for Senator Obama. McCain apparently believes Obama is an empty suit, held aloft only by the mainstream media's infatuation. (McCain critics call that rich, since McCain fed off the same infatuation in 2000, but then the mainstream media loves "maverick" Republicans.)
In any event, when Obama criticized McCain's stance on veterans' benefits, McCain unloaded on Obama's lack of military experience. McCain has supported countless candidates of his own generation who ducked the draft. We now have a volunteer army. Will McCain debate the merits of military issues with those who did not choose that form of service, or simply pull rank? As the old saying goes, there's plenty of guilt to go around.