Sunday, October 19, 2008

Can Obama Close the Deal With Those White Guys? (New York Times, October 19)

This is it. After eighteen months on the campaign trail (Obama declared his Presidential run on February 10, 2007), Barack's chances for the White House finally face the big question in this week's New York Times Magazine. His moment in history may be within Obama's reach, and the world may be ready for unprecedented American leadership -- but is West Virginia? How about Pennsylvania? (John Murtha had to backpedal on his "western Pennsylvania is racist" comments made last week: race is still an issue in a state largely conceded to be Democratic) -- while in Georgia, recent polls have Barack within 3 percentage points of an apparently sinking McCain/Palin team. The historical moment may be on Obama's side. Are the white guys? Time will tell.

It was just forty years ago -- political generations, but the blink of an eye in history -- that George Wallace, in his third-party Presidential run, created a serious challenge to the general campaigns of Humphrey and Nixon on a platform based on his previous pledge as two-time Alabama governor: "segregation now, segregation forever." He won five southern states (and ten million votes -- thirteen percent of the 1968 popular vote) as the candidate of the American Independent Party, and nearly succeeded in swiping victory from Richard Nixon. Nixon's "silent majority" -- mostly male, white and Christian -- became a political prize that the GOP has groomed carefully over the years.

In the 2008 election, the Republican Party faces challenges it has seldom encountered before. A sitting GOP president with the lowest approval ratings in history, an increasingly unpopular position in a muddled Middle East conflict, and a growing get-out-the-vote campaign that favors legions of new, young Democratic voters will all be factors on November 4. Yet the souring economy trumps every issue in the current election cycle, and as the cost of oil continues to fluctuate wildly it's these middle class pocketbook issues that will decide the upcoming elections, national and local. Rarely have Republicans had to argue their way out of their own economic woes as they do this year.

Matt Bai's article in the Sunday Times of October 19th focuses on areas of the country the Obama campaign itself considers "non-traditional," symbolically and mathematically. This includes states like Virginia, a Republican stronghold since the mid-60s. What bodes well for Obama in these areas is, ironically, the economic development that brought industry and prosperity -- and an influx of Democratic voters -- to Northern Virginia. Bai calls Virginia "the one state that no one expects Obama to surrender before election day," and with reason: as the state's northern area expands its technology arc along I-66, Virginia's rural, Southern region is losing population and traditional, old-line Republican voters. Of the country's 100 fastest-growing counties, six of them are in Virginia. The shift to urban areas among young Virginians, both white- and blue-collar, may mute old issues of political expectations -- and race. For many voters this year, new and old, the economy is all:

Perhaps no one is feeling as disoriented by the economic reversal of the past few years as these exurban voters, whose paradises are fast becoming prisons. They’re watching as the value of their stocks and homes plummets, even as the cost of filling up the tank and heating the house soars. Traffic congestion along the state’s main arteries has become a potent political issue, but fixing the problem requires more tax dollars. L. Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor and now mayor of Richmond, has seen the desperation rise. “They’re saying, ‘I’m working as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life, but I can’t save any money and I have to cut back, so what’s gone wrong here?’ ” Wilder told me recently. “People who think they had it made — doctors, lawyers, engineers — everybody is feeling the pinch.”

The white Republican base is disappearing in the face of economic realities to a new, independent-styled voter in cities throughout the South -- Charlotte, for example, which may put North Carolina in the Obama column. Yet this leaves the rural voters who need convincing to vote the national party. Bai refers to the Democrats' "smug image" -- the belief among rural voters that the Democrats mock their values, rather than respect them -- that Obama has to overcome. He's done that, primarily, simply by returning to Virgina time and again. A Democratic campaign office opened up in rural Danville, and the effect was "as if a smoldering meteor had smashed into the town green," Bai writes.

For many voters it is this re-affirmation of local values, and local issues, that resonates strongest. Local union representatives, Congressmen, bluegrass musicians like the legendary Ralph Stanley -- all of them endorsing Barack Obama -- are part of the campaign strategy encouraging rural Virginians to trust this Democratic presidential candidate, and overcome the personality attacks of the GOP repeated in the local media, who trade on Obama's differences.

It was only after the speech, prompted by questions from the audience, that Obama tried to reassure the crowd — without ever referring to the “bitter” comment, of course — that he was not some San Francisco liberal who pitied rural people for their religiosity and their pastimes. One man wanted to know what Obama thought of those who looked down on Sarah Palin because she was evangelical. No doubt thinking of the persistent rumors still flying around the Internet that say he is a closet Muslim, Obama reiterated, for about the seven millionth time this year, that he, too, is a practicing Christian. “This is a nation of believers,” he said, “and I’m one of them.”

A teenage girl asked Obama what he might do specifically for rural America. I found it odd that Obama had to be prompted to address this question, but he warmed to it immediately, ticking off a list of public investments that his administration could bring to the region: broadband lines, school financing, the development of biodiesel fuels. He talked about creating more jobs for local students, “so when they graduate from college those kids can stay here and live in Lebanon instead of having to go and work someplace else.”

Jobs, the economy, technology -- the future of rural America is in sync with those independent voters, many Republican, who will decide the election on November 4. The McCain effort at winning this new brand of voter seems to be misfiring at every turn, as if he's unaware of their very existence. His reference points -- "Joe the plumber," repeatedly calling himself the "fighter," even the Rocky theme used as his entrance music -- are so out of touch with the current mood as to seem desperate.

And comparing Barack Obama to Herbert Hoover in the last debate ... let's just be generous and hope that wasn't McCain's idea, but the suggestion of an overworked media spinner. Herbert Hoover! A more circumspect McCain wouldn't think of evoking shadows of the stock market crash of October, 1929 under another Republican president. If McCain wanted to fight Herbert Hoover, he should have run in 1929, to paraphrase his own debate zinger. The reference made McCain sound even older than his 72 years, if that's possible.

The race is Obama's to lose at this point. Recent polls indicate voters are thinking less about the color of a presidential candidate's skin than in facing the realities of more Republican rule. Increasingly the Dems have won ground by pointing out McCain's inescapable 90-percent-Bush voting record. As the GOP poll numbers sag behind all the Palin-fronting frenzy, you can almost hear the growing chorus of "hell, no" from the old-timers in the back row when McCain, ever more reluctant, takes the stage. Many of the new independents are those disenfranchised white guys, who saw the GOP flounder for months before settling on "The Maverick" (never their candidate anyway). They may turn the issue of race on its head: they wouldn't mind voting a white guy for President this year -- as long as it's not John McCain. As the Obama campaign goes straight into Republican territory, it's forging a new kind of 21st-century political base. Now, that's change.

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