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The Bittergate Scandal

The thing that struck me about Barack Obama's now-famous remarks about working-class Pennsylvanians is how totally incoherent they were. The critical sentence, which most of you have probably committed to memory, is this:

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

Mike Allen, Kevin Drum, publius -- among many, many others, have pointed out that these sentiments are wrong. But on their face they're not wrong, they simply make no sense at all. I can see how anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment is a way to explain your frustrations. But guns? How can guns explain your frustrations? And the context Obama puts this in is the economy of the last three decades. Obviously, people have not turned to religion or guns as a response to economic frustration.

Yet this very incoherence is Obama's defense. He surely was not saying that, before the 1970s, small towns were primarily filled with unarmed atheists. He's smart enough to understand that religion and gun ownership predate this period. So what was he saying? I think he was trying, in extremely jumbled shorthand, to make a point about a politics that revolves around cultural division. Now, the incoherent wording of his remarks is an opportunity for his opponents to fill in their own meaning. But it's also an opportunity for him to do the same. When politicians say they "misspoke," they usually said exactly what they meant but came to regret it. In this case, Obama really did misspeak.

--Jonathan Chait