Hillary’s big kitchen strategy

If you haven’t viewed the “attack” ad that is generating so much anger against Hillary Rodham Clinton, at least in the Ivory Tower offices of The New York Times and among many Barack Obama supporters, you owe it to yourself to watch it.

It’s at http://www.hillaryclinton.com/video/169.aspx.

If you’re an Obama supporter, you’ll most likely view it as an attack ad — or, as an Obama supporter told me, “a subtle attack ad.” If you’re a Clinton supporter, you most likely won’t. Moving forward out of Clinton’s Pennsylvania-primary win, voters’ reactions to the ad pose an interesting question about the future of this race.

In the big-picture context, reactions also pose questions about the future of the Democratic Party’s ability to hold together a crucial coalition of working-class white voters, Reagan (or conservative) Democrats and blacks. Each of these segments is needed by Democrats to win back the White House.

The Clinton Web site coins the term “the kitchen” ad because it quotes Harry Truman’s famous advice on what one ought to do if one “can’t stand the heat.” Before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama’s constituency consisted primarily of liberal, educated, upscale whites, young and first-time voters and blacks. Clinton’s base included union members, less-educated and lower-income voters and rural (read that, white) voters.

Pennsylvania dramatized Obama’s loss of support among better-educated voters, Catholics and low-income whites. Perhaps this is due to his refusal to disown his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Wright’s scalding anti-American remarks. Perhaps it is due to Obama’s inept classifications regarding gun-owning and religious voters while speaking to San Franciscans.

In either event, CBS News exit polls of Pennsylvania Democrats show Clinton’s gains in these categories. She won 69 percent of self-identified Catholics (who were 37 percent of primary voters), 51 percent of postgraduate-studies voters (who comprised 26 percent of primary voters) and 53 percent of voters with some college education or associate degrees.

Each category constitutes important inroads for Clinton and sets up general-election obstacles for Obama if he wins the nomination.

At this point, Obama is still clearly the party favorite, according to the delegate count. But his Pennsylvania loss is all the more stunning when one tallies the lavish sums he spent on advertising. According to the Associated Press, Obama outspent Clinton 3-1 on TV ads in the amount of $11.2 million. That, if nothing else, should have guaranteed him a win, not a 10-point loss. In Pennsylvania, as in Ohio and Texas, Obama’s “outraise and outspend” tactics resulted in a series of big-state losses that could prove fatal if repeated in a general election.

Clinton has thrown inexcusable and completely befuddling obstacles in her own path, such as her fabrication of landing under fire in Bosnia and her indirect putdown of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by belittling his civil-rights accomplishments compared with those of President Lyndon Johnson.

That said, when elite institutions such as The New York Times editorial board criticize her campaign and her “kitchen” ad as follows, they themselves do more to divide the Democratic electorate along gender, race and class lines than anything the candidates could do themselves:

“The Pennsylvania campaign, which produced yet another inconclusive result on Tuesday, was even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it.”

I say this as a Brooklyn-born, Manhattan-raised Ivy Leaguer: The New York Times editorial board is overreacting and burnishing its reputation as an institution out of touch with the thinking of mainstream, moderate, middle Americans. Worse yet, it is fanning flames that might otherwise be long forgotten ashes by the general election.

The one thing both Democrats have going for them, which not even The New York Times can undo, is the weakness of the Republican opposition.

John McCain’s huge economic blunder this week may well cost him the support of fiscal conservatives, the same crowd looking to him to represent their interests in the White House. By proposing huge tax cuts without regard to their impact on an already out-of-control deficit, McCain did more to rip apart the fragile Republican coalition than anything either Obama or Clinton could do.

Aside from the venomous New York Times, McCain is now the Democratic coalition’s biggest booster. The American electorate is faced with a trio running for office whose ability to self-destruct would be the envy of kamikaze pilots.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)