The U.S. campaign has come down to two things Americans don’t like to discuss

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE May 19 2008


The U.S. campaign has come down to two things Americans don’t like to discuss

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE May 19 2008



The U.S. campaign has come down to two things Americans don’t like to discuss


“He’s a good speechmaker. He’s a talker. There’s just something I don’t like about him...” Karen Bridegam is a 65-year-old retiree who worked 30 years in one bakery in northern Indiana. She’s trying to put her finger on why she, like so many white working-class voters, doesn’t get the appeal of Barack Obama. Nor does her friend, Karen Levitz, who worked in the same bakery for 14 years.

“He doesn’t have enough experience. Sorry,” says Bridegam.

“He’s a little overconfident,” says Levitz.

“He’s a little too smooth,” adds Bridegam.

“Yes!” nods Levitz. “Too smooth, too smooth...”

“It’s like everything is too easy for him. I get leery of that,” adds Bridegam.

They have arrived an hour early to stand in a long line in front of the high school in Columbia City, population 7,000, to hear Bill Clinton campaign on behalf of his wife, whom they adore.

“I feel I could walk into a restaurant and sit down and visit with her,” confides Bridegam, who sports short curly grey hair, white sneak-

ers and a pink polo shirt with all its buttons done up. She repeats this point several times, and adds that she can’t imagine doing the same with Obama.

“She doesn’t come across as arrogant. She’s been through a lot and she’s come through it. And we’ve all had troubles,” she adds.

“Yes,” agrees Levitz. “Yes, we have.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton is banking on troubles—lost jobs, foreclosed houses, skyrocketing gas prices and health care bills—to draw the white working-class vote to somehow vault her over Obama’s lead among pledged convention delegates. Even as he remains the likely Democratic nominee, her campaign in Indiana—a heartland, rust-belt state that has lost its share of manufacturing jobs—and in places like it around the country, focused like a laser on economic bread-and-butter issues. The tactic was crucial to her strong showing on Tuesday in Indiana’s primary, and reflects a broader democratic deadlock that has so far kept Obama from sewing up the race. Although Obama handily took North Carolina on Tuesday, with its larger black population, preserving his healthy lead in overall delegates, exit polls in state after state have shown Clinton winning over the white working class. That’s enabled her to argue to the party’s unelected superdelegates who will cast the deciding votes in the race for the nomination that she is the stronger choice against presumptive Repub-

lican nominee John McCain. Her argument gained traction as Obama faced accusations of elitism, not to mention questions about his patriotism, values and judgment after video footage was unearthed of his long-time pastor blaming the U.S. government for the AIDS virus and thundering “God damn America.” It’s tricky business, this class stuff. Americans don’t much like to talk about it. Surveys show that most people—rich or poor—tend to describe themselves as “middle class.” And yet it is class, along with race, that has been shaping this Democratic contest, and laying bare deep divisions in American society and among Democrats who were assumed to be united in their dislike of George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh and lately, John McCain.

When Bill Clinton arrives at the high school gym and launches into a long-winded, policy-heavy speech, it’s hard to remember that he and his wife have made US$109 million since leaving the White House nearly eight years ago. He attacks the Bush administration’s tax cuts that were “supposed to have trickle-down benefits to the rest of us” but ended up helping the rich. He talks about being the first person in his family to go to college, to his working six jobs in law school— “only three of them at one time,” and to being the poorest president ever to move into the White House. “My momma didn’t


even believe I could be president,” he notes. He serves up his wife’s policy proposals with a heaping side of tragedy that he says he has encountered on the campaign trail: the single mother of six kids who lost her job; the mother who had no health insurance and died of breast cancer; the father with multiple sclerosis facing foreclosure on his home; the trucker driven into bankruptcy by high gas prices who was advised to get a divorce to collect more government aid. Sixteen years after such slogans won him the presidency, it’s “I feel your pain” and “It’s the economy, stupid” all over again. “She gets this economy and how it affects you,” he says of his wife.

Watching Clinton from the bleachers is Liana Clevenger, 47, who drives a bus for six dollars an hour. She’s on Medicaid and says she is frustrated that when her husband got a better-paying job, she had to pay higher deductibles for her medical coverage. “It’s like they don’t want us to get ahead,” she sighs. She says she plans to vote for Hillary because “I think she’s willing to do more for the working class.”

The demographic divides in this race have been deep, but somewhat mysterious. While it is perhaps understandable that African-Americans have flocked to Obama, and women have to some extent favoured Clinton, it has been less obvious why Obama has had a harder time with working-class whites. On paper, Clinton’s and Obama’s policy proposals on basic issues like health care and jobs differ very little. On paper, Obama’s biography appears similar to Clinton’s, if not more daunting: a biracial kid raised by a single mother and his grandparents, who made it to Columbia University,

and then passed up lucrative job opportunities to work with unemployed steelworkers on Chicago’s south side. Yet it is Clinton, whose middle-class family sent her to prestigious Wellesley College before she made it through Yale Law School on loans, who has managed to transform herself from successful corporate lawyer and globe-trotting first lady to a shot-drinking everygal, complete with straying husband.

How? Part of the answer is Bill. For many voters, the Clintons are tried-and-true. The day after the former president’s appearance in Columbia City, Carolyn Fultz, a 44-yearold letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service, travelled 72 km from the northern Indiana city of Angola to hear Hillary Clinton speak at the Indiana Institute of Technology in Fort Wayne. She recalled that when her first child was born 20 years ago, she had six weeks off to care for him before going back to work. But when her daughter was born six years later, after Bill Clinton had signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, one of his first as president, she was able to take double that time. “I was able to breastfeed my daughter and spend more mommy time with her,” says Fultz, who suspects her daughter has grown up healthier than her son as a result. “No other president has affected my life so directly.”

A second reason is Hillary Clinton’s deliberate strategy in recent weeks to stake her campaign on these voters—even at the risk of appearing to pander. Ahead of the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, she embraced a proposal by McCain to suspend the federal gas tax for the summer. Obama called the idea a gimmick that would save the average family a total of US$28, assuming the oil com-

panies don’t pocket the difference, and warned that it would bleed a fund dedicated to highway upkeep, leading to the loss of thousands of construction jobs. Clinton dismissed Obama’s criticism as “elite opinion.” She sounded rather Bush-like in pressing congressional Democrats to declare whether “they are with us or against us.” Inconveniently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed the idea. “First of all, there is no reason to believe that any moratorium on the gas tax will be passed on to the consumer,” Pelosi told reporters. When Clinton was asked to name a single economist who agreed with the gas tax plan, she told ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos on Sunday: “I’m not going to put my lot in with economists.”

When Clinton arrives in Fort Wayne, she is introduced by the state’s popular senator, Evan Bayh, who is being touted as a potential vice-presidential running mate for either candidate. “If you stand with her, she’ll stand with us because she’s one of us,” he says. Clinton quickly gets right down to the bread and butter: jobs, tax credits for college and retirement, a moratorium on foreclosures, and universal health care. The Ivy Leaguer is now dropping the g’s on her gerunds, as she talks about “folks tryin’ to decide between gas and groceries.” The crowd is enthusiastic. At one point, Clinton tells a story about getting a lift to a campaign event in South Bend in a pickup truck. Filling up half a tank of gas cost US$63, she says in outrage. Someone shouts from the audience, “Ninety-five dollars!” Another: “One hundred and two dollars!” Clinton is loving it. “What else?” she calls out. She concludes: “The question is, who understands what you are going through and who can you trust to be on your side?” What the country


needs, she declares, is a president “who is going to be a fighter on your behalf.”

When she finishes, Clinton is thronged by admirers who want her autograph. But across the street from the event hangs a reminder that this remains an overwhelmingly Republican state, and a foretaste of what the general election might hold for a Clinton candidacy. A blue pantsuit, emblematic of the Clinton image, has been hung in effigy under a sign, “Liar, liar, Hillary’s pantsuit on fire, there was no sniper fire,” in reference to her exaggerated tale of arriving in war-torn Bosnia. Another sign invokes a different blue garment. “The Clintons left a stain on our country. No more stains. Vote McCain.”

Elsewhere in Indiana, Obama struggles to prove he’s a regular guy, not some exotic snob who frequents scary preachers and won’t wear an American flag pin on his lapel. The Illinois senator shows up at the Dairy Club building of a fairgrounds in the city of South Bend, clad in a white shirt, charcoal slacks and a silver blue tie, looking more Chardonnay than Bud Light. He stands in the middle of the low-slung shed, surrounded by bales of hay and an antique Ford tractor. To an audience of mostly white farmers, he takes pains to emphasize his maternal grandparents’ roots in rural Kansas. His paternal grandmother and her chickens back in Kenya go unmentioned.

Phyllis Middleton, a 52-year-old bus driver from Tipton County, happened upon the Obama visit while attending a Studebaker car club meeting and swap meet elsewhere on the fairgrounds. She’s a Republican who is considering voting Democrat this year—for whoever will take on the immigration issue. Her brother works at an auto plant that is

scheduled to close. “We have tomato growers in our area who bring in immigrant workers, when we have so many people unemployed,” she adds.

A born-again Christian, Middleton says she prefers Obama to Clinton, whom she dislikes, but she was stopped cold by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright affair, during which Obama at first defended his pastor of more than 20 years, then eventually denounced him after Wright made several incendiary public appearances. “If he believes him, he should stick up for him. If he doesn’t, he should have disconnected himself a long time ago,” she says.

The hundred or so people in attendance at the invitation-only event are within arm’s reach of the senator, who doesn’t have a grey hair visible in his closely cropped hair, but has an air of fatigue about him that was missing earlier in the campaign. Pledging to “change the way politics is done in Washington,” Obama offers a structural critique of the nation’s ills that sounds almost professorial—and stands in sharp contrast to Clinton’s nuts-and-bolts policy speeches. “The drug and insurance companies have spent $1 billion preventing health care reform,” he explains, and emphasizes his refusal to take money from special interests or lobbyists. He takes questions on veterans’ care, land preservation, crop dumping on the developing world, the plight of farm wives, the regulation of hog producers, and is forced to dispel yet again an Internet rumour that he refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

When Obama is done speaking, Middleton, the bus driver, is impressed but not persuaded. “It was a good speech. He seems sincere. I’d like to hear him again,” she says. Tom Curtis, a 53-year-old Republican from

nearby Elkhart who is “in the paint business,” said he was impressed by the speech, but was still troubled by the Wright issue. “If he’s the nominee, the Republicans will plaster him with it. They are going to stick it on him. They were too close for too long. He had four different explanations and people are not buying it. If you think it’s ugly now, just wait.”

The next day, Obama holds a huge rally in a park in Fort Wayne. The attendance is several times what Hillary Clinton drew earlier in the day at Institute Tech, and the crowd is much more diverse. Volunteers serve up ham sandwiches and baked beans. Obama is on stage with his wife, Michelle, who talks about her husband “changing the face of the presidency,” and two young daughters, with photographers snapping images of the allAmerican family.

Earlier in the day in Fort Wayne, across town and literally on the other side of the train tracks from the campaign events, at the all-black Union Baptist Church where men arrive for Sunday worship in black suits and some women still sport elaborate hats, Lititia Hatcher-Roque, an Obama supporter, shares the same life worries as the white workers who support Clinton. She doesn’t have health insurance, and because of a pre-existing condition, asthma, she says it would cost her $500 to $600 a month. She also doesn’t offer health insurance to the four employees at the small business she co-owns, though she dreams of doing so one day.

But the economic interests that might bind her with working-class whites are overshadowed by race. She once liked the Clintons, she says-until Bill Clinton began making what she calls racially charged remarks about Obama. “Bill Clinton has turned off

the black community. He played the race card and he plays dirty politics. At first I was neutral, but now I won’t even vote if Hillary gets the nomination, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel the same way.”

She identifies more with Obama’s background than Clinton’s: “He has a flavour of what it means to be both black and white in America. He knows what it means to be raised by a single mother.” And she has a theory about white working-class resistance to Obama: “It’s really simple. Change is hard. They are more comfortable with what has always been. She’s a white woman and if they can’t have a white man, it’s the second best thing.”

As a phone bank volunteer for Obama, she has encountered racism when calling white parts of town. “When we try to call to ask for votes, we’ve had people say they would never vote for a black man. I was in the vegetable market the other day wearing an Obama Tshirt, and some people—they were workingclass men—were saying to me that no way would they ever vote for a black man.” Despite her support for Obama, she has few harsh words for Rev. Wright. “You have to understand, African-American preachers—their preaching is more emotional,” Hatcher-Roque says. “What my pastor says doesn’t necessarily reflect what I believe. I think they are blowing it out of proportion.” When pressed on why there has not been more criticism among African-Americans of Wright’s comments, such as the assertion that the U.S. government created AIDS to hurt black people, she has one word: Tuskegee. “You know about Tuskegee, don’t you? Everyone knows about Tuskegee.”

Tuskegee was an infamous 40-year-long medical experiment run in secret by the U.S. government, in which 399 black men in Alabama infected with syphilis were denied


treatment so doctors could study the fatal progression of the disease. The study was done without informed patient consent, and led to the infection of some of the men’s wives and children. It was ended in 1972, and the survivors received $9 million in a lawsuit settlement. Bill Clinton issued a formal government apology in 1997 “Tuskegee showed that the American government could used African-Americans as experimental subjects. They affected a whole community,” says Hatcher-Roque. “That’s why the talk about AIDS. [Rev. Wright] came up in a generation when that was fresh in their minds.”

Then she mentions an Associated Press article from April about a federally funded experiment, whose report was published in 2005, in which scientists spread sludge containing human and industrial waste around the backyards in poor black communities in Baltimore and East St. Louis to see whether it would prevent lead in the already-contaminated soil from harming young children. The families did not receive full information about

the contents of the sludge or its potential impact on their health. “There is a high suspicion level in the African-American community,” Hatcher-Roque says. “There is a low level of trust. We thought some of the things he said might have been true,” she says of Wright’s statements that white America finds outlandish. “But the timing is awful.” Hatcher-Roque’s pastor, the Rev. Sylvester Hunter, is an imposing bearded man sporting a black pinstripe suit and a broad grin. He sits in the front pew and gestures around the contemporary red brick building adorned with wood and stained glass windows. “Because I pastor this church, you think all these people believe what I believe?” he chuckles. Case in point: Hunter is a long-time Clinton supporter, and his congregation are mainly Obama people. “We have some spirited debates,” he says.

Hunter had supported Clinton before Obama got into the race, and saw no reason to switch sides. “I liked that she fought for health care when she could have stood back. That’s when I noticed her strength as a woman and a politician and an individual who thinks for herself.” He says he is not offended by Wright’s comments, though he doesn’t share all his views. “The AfricanAmerican pulpit is totally different than the white pulpit,” Hunter says. “There is a right to express political and social opinion. Rev. Wright is a prophetic preacher who believes in his relationship with God. He believes in the information he receives. He has the right to.”

Hunter takes an equally relaxed attitude to Bill Clinton’s hardball campaigning against Obama earlier this year: “That’s just politics,” he shrugs. Regardless of who the Democrats nominate, it will be a historic candidacy—with even more divisive politics by November, he predicts. “I would tell Barack Obama, you haven’t even seen the real politics yet.” M