From Dixie to the Rust Belt

MARCI McDONALD March 21 1988

From Dixie to the Rust Belt

MARCI McDONALD March 21 1988

From Dixie to the Rust Belt


On Chicago’s industrial southeast side, the hollow shells of abandoned factories provide vivid reminders of the decline of America’s manufacturing base—and of the once-proud region now known as “the Rust Belt.” It was there, during a tour of a steel-fabricating plant last week, that Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, the new front-runner in the Democratic presidential stakes, signalled an abrupt change in political style. Only the morning before Dukakis had wound up his three-week blitz of the 20 southern and border states in last week’s Super Tuesday primary with a display of the more conservative image he had adopted for the conservative South. Now, putting on a hard hat to mingle with Chicago steelworkers, he pursued the working-class voter. Dukakis blasted corporate “big money” managers for being more interested in paper profits from mergers than in reinvesting in aging U.S. plants.

Said Dukakis: “We must have a competitive steel industry and a competitive auto industry or we can’t be a great nation.”

For all his confidence, the Massachusetts governor clearly knew that he faced a long and bitter fight for the nomination. Although he won 385 delegates on Super Tuesday, he had finished in a virtual threeway dead heat for delegates with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee.

Indeed, in the wake of the first southern regional primary designed to speed up the selection

process, it swiftly became clear that Super Tuesday had instead served to place the weight of choosing a Democratic presidential nominee once again on America’s northern industrial heartland. And as the marathon presidential campaign moved to this week’s Illinois primary—and other Rust Belt contests over the next three months— Dukakis’s revised rhetoric reflected that high-stakes shift.

Still, Dukakis was not the only candidate to adjust his message to fit the territory. Even Vice-President George Bush—whose 16-state landslide virtually guaranteed him the Republican nomination—suddenly added a more humane note to his rhetoric. In his victory speech to a wildly cheering Houston crowd, the vice-president for the first time acknowledged the grow-

ing numbers of urban poor. Said Bush: “We can build on our economic success until we’ve reached every man, woman and child in this country. We’re a compassionate country and let’s not forget it.”

That change in tone was an attempt to answer charges that his Super Tuesday sweep was a result of Ronald Reagan’s massive popularity in the South and not of his own stillvague platform. Said conservative spokesman Kevin Phillips: “We don’t know if he’s from Texas or New England, whether he’s a moderate or a conservative. The vice-president has to define himself.”

In fact, some Democrats hailed Bush’s win as proof that the Super Tuesday experiment had not been a total disappointment for their party. Said former South Carolina Democratic chairman Donald Fowler: “It did turn out well in one way. Super Tuesday nominated George Bush, and I think we can beat him.” Polls show that more Democrats would cross party lines to vote for another Republican presidential hopeful, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, than for Bush. And many analysts agreed that, although the vice-president probably would secure his party’s nomination at next August’s convention in New Orleans, he remained vulnerable in November’s general election, particularly on one issue —his role in the Iran-contra affair (page 20). Said Phillips: “The Iran-contra issue is a potential bomb for the Bush campaign.”

Bush’s Super Tuesday triumph dealt a humiliating blow to Dole, his chief rival for the nomination. Dole gathered only 98 delegates, compared with Bush’s 578. And he failed to carry a single state, including North Carolina, home of his wife, Elizabeth, Reagan’s former transportation secretary. By the time the verdict rolled in, Dole was already in Illinois, which he admitted he must win if he is to stay in the race. In fact, on the morning after Super Tuesday, as Dukakis was on Chicago’s south side calling for an industrial renaissance, Dole was on the other side of town talking about a resuscitation of another kind—his own. Returning to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital where he underwent six operations in the 1940s to repair his Second World War wounds, Dole vowed, “I’m going to start my road to recovery again in the state of Illinois, just like I did 40 years ago.”

But Dole faces almost insurmountable odds. He has to win 85 per cent of the Republican delegates who remain uncommitted. And his gravest problem last week was the fact that—despite raising nearly $21 million —his campaign was running out of money. And as he laid off 150 of his 300-strong staff and cancelled $600,000 worth of television advertising, rumors swept through the travelling press corps that he was dropping out.

Dole called a hasty airport news conference to refute the rumors, while aides explained that he was replanning his media strategy for a weekend television blitz. Claiming that the staff cuts had been planned before, Dole added, “This isn’t a jobs program.”

The southern primaries also robbed Dole of a last-ditch plan to stop Bush— a prospective alliance with former television evangelist Marion (Pat) Robertson, which the two men had sketchily concluded in New Hampshire last month. In one of the biggest surprises of Super Tuesday, Robertson’s so-called invisible army of evangeli-

cal Christians failed to materialize in the voting booths, dealing him a crushing blow. Many evangelicals blamed Robertson’s exaggerated rhetoric — including charges of Soviet missiles in Cuba —for giving them reason to doubt his White House qualifications. Said Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, a large Christian lobby: “Some Christians are concerned at the

way Pat has given reckless answers.” Clearly, Robertson’s results proved that there was no such thing as a monolithic evangelical vote. Still, the former televangelist was already predicting last week that he would run for the presidency again in 1992. Said Robertson: “If this is not the one, I’ll be back four years later.” He insisted

that the outcome had not shaken his belief in his ability to hear God’s voice, which he had claimed guided him to seek the nomination. As he told Maclean's last month, “Nothing shakes my faith.” But he conceded that when it came to interpreting heavenly intentions, “of course, I could always be mistaken.” Super Tuesday did accomplish one intended result by narrowing the field of candidates. Within days New York Representative Jack Kemp— who won only four delegates—bowed out amid speculation that Bush might offer him the vice-presidential spot. Among the Democrats, no such reprieve awaited former Colorado senator Gary Hart, whose withdrawal surprised no one. Hart failed to win a single delegate or state. Super Tuesday also appeared to have dealt a near-fatal blow to the trade-protection campaign of Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt, who managed only to carry his own state. In the battle for the conservative white working-class vote in the South, Gephardt was roundly beaten by Gore. The Tennessee senator staged an eleventh-hour surge to reap 324 delegates in six states—astonishing pollsters who had declared his campaign dead. Said a beaming Gore as he arrived in Illinois the next day brandishing his occasional Tennessee twang: “Some of them were kind of eatin’ crow this morning.”

Gore’s gains demonstrated the critical importance of television commercials — and the money to buy them. That is likely to prove even more pivotal in the large industrial states with primaries still to come. By pulling out of the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses, Gore husbanded a $2.5-million war chest for the Super Tuesday battle, hiring media wizard Ray Strother to film a new series of commercials. Strother recast Gore as a populist—the champion of “the average working man and woman.” And Gore’s advisers credit those ads—run in the week before Super Tuesday—for his lastminute surge among a still largely undecided electorate. Said his press secretary, Arlie Schardt: “It had to get that close to the election before that huge undecided block made up their minds.”

The financially strapped Gephardt now has scant hopes for recovery. Deciding to bypass this week’s Illinois contest, he is focusing on the March 26 Michigan caucuses, where his import-reduction campaign has won him the support of Detroit autoworkers. His congressional colleagues will be watching the contest with one eye on the omnibus protectionist trade bill currently under consideration. Said his deputy campaign manager, Joe Trippi:

“Michigan is going to decide once and for all whether the trade issue is real. We’re going to put that on the line there.”

Meanwhile, within hours of Dukakis’s steel mill tour, Gore flew into Chicago from Tennessee carrying his own retailored populist message to the steelworkers.

Holding hands with his blond wife, Tipper, Gore put on his own hard hat and proclaimed, “We’ve got to ask what’s best for the people in the hard hats out here.” But he and Dukakis—both Harvard graduates with liberal voting records—inspired mirth in Chicago’s factories as they took up their new roles as the workers’ friends.

Watching a 3,000-ton press shape a gigantic red-hot 22-ton ingot, Gore declared, “That’s the heaviest industry I’ve ever seen.” And Dukakis raised eyebrows by comparing his defeat in a

1978 gubernatorial election to a steelworker being laid off. Said truck driver Bartley Liberty: “He didn’t have to worry about how he was going to pay the next electrical bill.”

As analysts predicted a possible Dukakis-Gore Democratic ticket, this

week’s primary produced an added twist in the already complicated Democratic equation. Despite the fact that he failed to compete in Super Tuesday, Illinois polls were still predicting at week’s end that the state’s veteran senator, Paul Simon, would win on his home ground. In fact, Simon’s chief rival in Illinois is another native son, Jesse Jackson, who emerged as Super Tuesday’s most spectacular Democratic winner. Spending only

$125,000—compared with an estimated $2.5 million by Dukakis—he won 369 delegates and 91 per cent of the black vote across the South. With large black urban populations in the remaining northern primary states and an expanding base among white voters, Jackson still stands a chance of emerging with the largest share of the popular vote. And although his aides privately admit that he cannot win the nomination at the convention, his influence will increase with another strong showing this week. Already, his impassioned rhetoric and visionary platform have irrevocably shaped an otherwise lacklustre

Democratic campaign. As first Gephardt—

and then Dukakis and Gore—appealed to the Rust Belt’s workers to

stand up against large corporate interests, it was Jackson’s message

that they were borrowing. But Stephen Hess of Washington’s Brookings Institution declared that “macho, working man’s populist talk” could ultimately prove counterproductive. He added: “It’s a very dangerous theme in American politics. It’s class antagonism, and once that genie is let out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put it back in.”