Tuesday, April 22, 2008

You've Got A Friend In Pennsylvania

The Keystone State votes today.

It's kind of funny; a Pennsylvania native friend of mine despaired back in December that his state was going to have no say in the nomination process. I didn't really disagree with him at the time, but he probably regrets having said that after sitting through weeks of continuous media attention and an infinite loop of candidates' television commercials.

Supposedly Hillary Clinton is going to get the validation she needs to keep her campaign going today. The Obama campaign has had some difficulties in recent weeks and while it could easily have been worse, there are some uneasy feeling in the pit of some of our stomachs.

At this date it's hard to say much of anything about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or Bill Ayers, or that hasn't already been said by someone else dozens of times; I bring it up so no one chimes in and says I'm ignoring the elephants in the room or am part of the "Obama cult" that excuses all his shortcomings and amplifies those of Clinton and/or McCain. I'm not happy about everyone with whom Obama has associated himself, but I never expect to be happy with everyone who supports the same candidate for President that I do. I would have liked to have seen some more discretion on his part...but going to be that's part of the package when your preferred candidate isn't someone who has spent his entire life grooming himself for the White House. People with lifelong Presidential ambitions try to keep their distances from the Wrights of the world, and, for better and for worse, that's not quite Obama. What's more important to me is that I see no indication that Obama harbors black nationalist or anarcho-syndicalist views and that anyone who honestly believes that there's a chance he does probably wasn't a persuadable voter to begin with. I see no indication that the individuals who have caused the controversies in question would have any role in the formulation of any policy in a hypothetical Obama administration, and no indication that Obama has promised anything in terms of programs or policies toward them in exchange for their support.

And then there's the "elitism" question, which has given us the curious spectacle of a bunch of millionaire talking heads claiming blue-collar bonafides while attacking, in particular, Obama and his supporters as elitists.

It's definitely a sign of style-over-substance politics when people can, with a straight face, label "populist" can be applied to an administration which has presided over levels of wealth concentration in fewer and fewer hands without recent precedent, all led by a man who describes his "base" as the "haves and the have mores." All based on this notion of whom the average person would rather have a beer with - and the man doesn't even drink!

For whatever it's worth, here are the remarks that caused the controversy:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. 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.

It's somewhat clumsily expressed, but it sounds a lot like the narrative, popularized by, among others, Thomas Frank, that's been much discussed in Democratic circles since 2004. When blue-collar white voters in the Rust Belt perceived that there was little or no difference between the two major parties regarding pocketbook and lunchpail issues, all that was left to vote on were cultural issues - abortion, school prayer, same-sex marriage, gun control, immigration. (Frank's book of course is about Kansas rather than the Rust Bust specifically, but his chapters dealing with Wichita and the Kansas City suburbs apply very well to places like Pennsylvania and Ohio.)
The conservative movement has been very skilled at tapping into these sorts of issues to create the well worn "red states" narrative that has served paid big political dividends for them.

You've heard it before. It usually mentions French wine and/or cheese, sometimes incorporating Italianate coffee-based beverages and Swedish auto manufacturers. It's further proof that people in this country define themselves and their peers far too much based on consumer products.

Going after Hollywood, Manhattan, and Berkeley has provided the movement with a handy replacement for the race-based appeals the GOP used to help turn the South solidly Republican but have now become something of a liability for them in more recent times. In the case of Obama, it's a convenient line of attack against him that scarcely discuss his race.

There is nothing even remotely proletarian about any of the three remaining serious candidates. Besides, I thought the American national founding myth was that there was no such thing as class.

Democrats have picked up on the Frank thesis and definitely altered their message in 2006 - they've essentially given up on federal gun control, have treaded more lightly on the abortion issue, and found a slate of candidates in many places (Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia is the exemplar) who were often for one reason or another - military record, neo-populist appeal, authentic regionalist appeal - tougher targets for standard-issue Republican attacks. Combine that with an unpopular administration pushing unpopular policies, and with a series of embarrassing and mostly Republican scandals on Capitol Hill, and it proved a winning combination.

It would have been far better if Obama had more clearly emphasized that it was the politicians turning their backs on the working-class voters all the while making empty promises and insincere platitudes were the ones who were at fault, rather than the voters, who were simply working with what was given to them. It would also have been a nice tactical shot aimed more squarely at the Clinton administration, many of whose signature accomplishments were actually Republican ideas. To say that voters to "cling" to something reminds too many of Linus van Pelt and his security blanket.

The ubiquity of Frank's narrative explains why there's been so much battling over NAFTA in the Democratic race this year despite trade with Canada and Mexico being a very small part of the reason for widespread American de-industrialization, and despite the widespread consensus that an attempt to turn back the clock at this time would not bring the lost jobs back. NAFTA has enormous symbolic value to those who saw it as the quinessential betrayal of American laborers, as the moment at which the Democrats became indistinguishable from the Republicans in their eyes regarding their interests. It's no accident that the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in the election following the NAFTA vote. One continuing problem with regards to NAFTA - originally sold to some doubters as a way to help reduce the incentives for Mexicans to become illegal immigrants, it in fact exacerbated the issue as the small-scale Mexican agricultural sector was stomped upon, leading many more farmers and farm workers to try to cross the border in such of economic opportunity.

Obama's tough talk on trade is an attempt for Obama to broaden his appeal within the party beyond his current twin bases of the black vote on one hand and the reformist wing of the Democratic Party - many of the same people who backed Howard Dean four years ago, or Bill Bradley four years before that - on the other. Hillary's following suit is, well, is a Clinton trademark, an attempt to co-opt a portion of the opposition. To the extent either is making promises he or she has no intention of keeping , they're part of the same problem they've been decrying.

All this, is of course, a typical politician's gambit, which is at odds with the Obama "new politics" brand label, one many of us find appealing. At the same time, I recognize that you've got to play some hardball to win; the good-government types weren't able to get Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, or Howard Dean to the White House.

And I'm fine with attacks on Obama based on issues like that. I'd rather talk about that than how well he bowls or how often he wears a flag lapel pin. Hillary doing a shot of Crown Royal is almost as funny as Barack Obama trying to bowl. And John McCain, whose been spared this thusfar because the media loves him and because the focus right now is on the Democrats, but given time I'm sure we could concoct a similar stupid human trick for him to perform.

No comments: