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Will Obama Relive Hart's '84 New Jersey Nightmare in Pennsylvania?

April 11, 2008

On several occasions, I've suggested that the Obama-Clinton slugfest bears an uncanny resemblance to the 1984 Democratic race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. Now just two weeks out from what could be his make-or-break moment in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama may be about to relive Gary Hart's '84 New Jersey nightmare. Alas, the God and guns of Obama's "bitter" people in the Keystone State may have the same devastating impact as Hart's "samples at a toxic waste dump" in New Jersey.
The Clinton and McCain camps have already begun lambasting Obama for "elitist" and "condescending" comments about the people of small town Pennsylvania made (in all places) at a San Francisco fundraiser:

"And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

The timing for Barack Obama could not have been worse. Just as he was closing the gap in a decisive Pennsylvania primary that could be a knockout blow against Hillary Clinton, Obama may have produced the unforgettable gaffe that derails his growing momentum in that state - and beyond.
Just ask Gary Hart.
In late May and early June 1984, Hart was locked in a tight New Jersey primary contest he had to win to deny Mondale a first-ballot nomination at the Democratic convention the following month. At a California fundraiser eerily reminiscent of Obama's this week, Hart and his wife Lee spoke with reporters at a Los Angeles event. In one moment of carelessness, Hart, too, struck a nerve with voters in a critical state. As Time recalled:

In a classic campaign boner, he exposed his sarcastic side at a fund raiser in Los Angeles. The "bad news," he told a well-heeled audience standing on the lawn of a Bel Air mansion, is that he has to campaign apart from his wife Lee. "The good news for her is that she campaigns in California while I campaign in New Jersey." When Mrs. Hart interjected, "I got to hold a koala bear," Hart sniggered, "I won't tell you what I got to hold: samples from a toxic-waste dump."

Hart went from closing fast on Mondale in the Garden State to a decisive 15 point blowout a week later. Mondale went on to sew up the Democratic nomination thanks to the delegates he swept in New Jersey. The rest, as they say, is history.
As I can personally attest, the impact of that one cataclysmic slight against the good people of New Jersey was lasting. I not only worked for Gary Hart in 1984, but was at the photo-op at the toxic waste dump in question. While hanging out at the Jersey shore the next summer, I was harangued by a woman who saw my "Gary Hart for President" t-shirt. "I hate him," she said, "because he insulted our state."
Obama's misstep may yet prove much worse and far more damaging in Pennsylvania and beyond. Gary Hart, after all, only inadvertently perpetuated a stereotype of New Jersey itself as one large waste dump. Barack Obama's offhand remark about God, guns and immigrants will not only resonate in small town Pennsylvania, but likely around the nation as well.
UPDATE: The Obama campaign's first response seems to underestimate the gravity of his blunder. Sadly, citing any of the endless list of examples of John McCain being out of touch will not undo the damage. And while Senator Obama did address the imbroglio at an Indiana event today, his discussion likely did little to change minds about the implications of his California comments.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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