Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hillary, Obama and Bubba: old networks v. new in the democratic primary

On the campaign trail: Old networks vs. new in the democratic primary

We used to call them Reagan Democrats. Nowadays the national media have taken to calling them the “white working class.” In the South, they’re called Bubba. In 2008, they are the key to victory.

As campaigns have adopted the technology of the consumer economy, politics has become an industry that markets to targeted groups. Campaigns know your age, your gender, your race, your education level, your ZIP code and carrier-route, your brand preference in automobiles, the assessed value of your house, and lots more about your behavior as a consumer, as well as how many times you’ve voted in recent elections—and it’s on the basis of these consumer data that campaigns design their outreach to you.

David Axelrod

You’re being sold soap, insurance, brands of dog food, clothing, cars, and now, this year—based on how you buy soap, dog food, cars, and the rest—you’re being sold an ideal of national leadership.

The consumer preferences of many groups have already been identified. The campaigns know what most women want. They know what the African-Americans, the Hispanics, the Ford drivers, the Volvo drivers, the mini-van drivers, the mini-mansion owners, and other groups all like—and now the people who are up for grabs are white males, including Bubba.

That’s because Bubba seems, at the moment, no longer completely sold on being a Republican. Just last week, a tax-raising Democrat won a special Congressional election in a Louisiana seat that had been Republican for a generation. That means that the South could be an actual battleground in the election of 2008.

The battle for Bubba

The South has voted for Republicans since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964—except when Bill Clinton ran in 1992 and 1996, when the Clinton-Gore ticket broke the GOP grip.

In 2000, Tennessee native Al Gore lost his own home state. It was a style thing. In 2004, genuine decorated war veteran John Kerry lost with a campaign so incompetent that he was knocked out entirely by George W. Bush, a candidate who acted like he was a Bubba, notwithstanding degrees from Yale and Harvard and a military record based on licensed premises.

Market researchers know that Bubba fears and Bubba resents and Bubba is not future-oriented. The Bill Clinton campaigns of 1992 and 1996 assuaged Bubba’s fears and micro-targeted its way to a coalition of the hopeful and of the resentful. The marketeer veterans of 1996, and of Hillary’s own Senate wins in 2000 and 2006, are targetting Bubba in 2008. That’s the explanation for Hillary’s economically nonsensical position on lifting the federal gas tax: Her people are smart enough to have focus-grouped the “elitism” question and to have identified it as Obama’s weakness—just as it was Kerry’s weakness and Gore’s weakness.

But Chip Forrester, a leading Tennessee Democrat, thinks that Barack Obama will be able to pull off in 2008 what Gore and Kerry couldn’t—and he thinks that he’ll be able to do it differently than Bill Clinton did.

An Obama insider speaks

How Forrester became an Obama delegate, and how he thinks Obama can win back Bubba, might tell the story of this election.

Tennessee was Clinton country in the 2008 primary. It borders Clinton’s home state of Arkansas on the Mississippi River. Hillary benefited from the ongoing popularity of former governor Ned Ray McWherter, who stumped hard for her. McWherter is as wily a pol as you’ll ever meet. During the most conservative Reagan and Bush 41 years, he sold anti-tax Tennesseans on new revenues for education thusly: He wanted all Tennessee children, no matter how poor, to learn to read Scripture on their own. It was masterful.

McWherter was about as close a political confidant as Bill Clinton ever had, and he and the Regular Democrats delivered his state for Hillary in the 2008 primary.

Chip Forrester, however—despite having been Al Gore’s state director when Gore was a Tennessee senator, as well as having been director of the party, a Congressional candidate, and now the treasurer of the state party—says Obama will win because Obama has, simply, the best campaign operation he has ever seen.

And that campaign operation, plus a message strategy that defies the micro-targeting of the Clinton approach, could just gather Bubba into a winning coalition.

Forrester knows how hard it will be for Obama to bridge the racial gap in the South. Chief Obama strategist David Axelrod acknowledged as much when Axelrod recruited Forrester last summer—back when former South Carolina Senator John Edwards, plus senior Democratic icons like Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, were very much in the running for the nomination.

“David asked me to read Obama’s books,” said Forrester, whose own unsuccessful congressional campaign Axelrod had advised back in 1992. “I looked at his record and saw that Obama had a history of dealing with Republicans, and let me tell you—this is a state where you simply have to be able to reach across party lines.

“But then it got to be a very practical call,” said Forrester. “Obama’s campaign was technically the most competent operation I’ve seen.”

Forrester is one of 66 members of the State Democratic Committee. He has yet to receive an email, a text message, or a call from the Clinton campaign, but early on and ever since, both before and after the primary, he receives updates from the Obama people.

“That’s the blocking and tackling of Democratic party work,” Forrester says. “You get all those folks into the database. You keep in touch with them, make them feel involved, give them something to share back in the office or in the grocery store line. It’s not about fundraising, it’s about networking. And the network is a whole lot bigger than insiders like me. It just keeps growing.”

But is that kind of networking going to bring Bubba in? Forrester was cautious but optimistic.

“There are more people coming into the party right now than I have ever seen before in my life,” he said. “It’s Obama bringing them in. It’s the block clubs and church-service groups, FaceBook and clubs, you name it. It’s just a whole different animal than traditional political organizing.”

Labor’s take on it all

Some people don’t buy it. In fact, some grizzled veterans see Hillary Clinton coming from behind and picking up such enormous momentum out of Obama’s stumbles with “elitism,” problems with Jeremiah Wright, and Hillary’s tremendous appeal with working-class voters that they believe she will overtake Obama just as she did in Indiana.

One anonymous analyst, a senior political strategist for labor, shook his head in wonder and admiration for Hillary.

“She’s got balls as big as basketballs,” he said. “How the fuck did she get up, day after day through all those months she was losing, and just go out there and work, work, work? She has earned this thing.”

Obama simply won’t sell, he said, echoing recent comments by local and national leaders of the steelworkers, AFSCME, and other big unions.

Who won’t buy?

“Guys like me,” he said. “And guys I work with. And women who work. We’ll take him as vice president in a minute, but Hillary’s ours. She is one tough broad.”

Roads and Destinations: Washington's detour on race sets America's policy compass

Washington's detour on race sets America's policy compass

On the day when Barack Obama’s pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright came to Washington to confront the press for its hypocrisy, a little-known member of the Bush Cabinet gave an astounding speech about the nuts-and-bolts of America’s future. The media were all over Wright. There is still a hole where the other spoke.

The Reverend Wright kicked a little DC butt on the always entertaining subject of race relations. C-SPAN will run and re-run the festivities at the National Press Club for all to see on basic cable. The ever-growing political commentary industry will have a jolly old time chewing on this for weeks to come.

Meanwhile, at the Brookings Institution, the Secretary of Transportation talked about how $300 billion a year in federal money will be spent—money that is largely directed by unspoken racial considerations. Nobody, save a few policy wonks and congressional staffers, heard her.

US Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters

Secretary Mary Peters wasn’t particularly entertaining. She did not speak in the time-honored context of what one American historian called “The American Jeremiad,” in reference to the dire warnings of the Old Testament prophet and not this particular Chicago reverend.

It wasn’t high style. But what Peters said was…scary.

She said that the federal government has no transportation policy, and that the no-policy policy will stay in place for the next 50 years—except for a little tinkering here and there with the way the feds address crowded highways in the LA, Atlanta, and New York-Washington corridors.

As for the rest of the $300 billion a year?

“We’re not going to make any decisions about land use,” she said. “That’s up to the states.”

What that means is that, year after year, the patterns of sprawling suburbs, abandoned cities, ever-more-numerous lanes of super-highways, and the rest of the planning debacles engineered by the highway engineers in state governments will go forth as they have since the federal highway program began.

Because there is no federal policy about where this federal money should go.

Meanwhile, your federal government is waging a war over control of the world’s oil supplies. New roads—on which imported oil is consumed—will continue to be built with federal tax dollars.

Hard words, harder reality

Meanwhile, the Reverend Wright spoke to a very enthusiastic group of friends, and a somewhat entertained collection of reporters, in the equally august National Press Club.

He spoke like Jeremiah. The first one.

Wright mixed it up straight away. He challenged the press corps for allowing some non-veteran to accuse him, a six-year veteran of the United States Marines, of being unpatriotic.

“My god-daughter’s unit just arrived in Iraq this week while those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service,” he ever-so-gently said, “while sending 4,000 American boys and girls to die over a lie.”

Dying over a lie. Indeed. The truth, however, is not setting us free.

“How many years did [Vice President Dick] Cheney serve?” Wright asked.

Wright’s speech was about the manners and the dimensions and the specific modes of discourse of the black church in America.

Wright also spoke about his AIDs-conspiracy remarks. “Remember the Tuskegee Experiment,” he said, when asked about his assertion that the United States government is fully capable of having concocted the AIDs virus as a way of keeping minorities sick and oppressed.

The Tuskegee Experiment was an officially sanctioned “experiment” that gave black men venereal diseases that maimed, disfigured, and killed them—rather in the way that Nazis performed scientifically worthless, murderous, and ultimately criminal “experiments” on their captives.

And he warned that if his parishioner Barack Obama makes it to the White House, today’s Jeremiah is going to be in his face about fundamental policy issues.

Racial style and fundamental issues

Whoever wins, I hope Reverend Wright gets his time in the Oval Office.

One does not know how President Clinton or President Obama will deal with the instrumentalities of racial isolation—namely, with the roads that drained cities of non-minorities, and committed the United States to importing oil, as surely as if the roads were built for the very purposes of dividing us by race and making us dependencies of sheikdoms.

One expects, however, that President McCain will continue the policy framework of President Bush, and of his Transportation Secretary, who decided that non-policy is official federal policy. McCain has stuck with Bush in war policy and on tax policy, and so he will with transportation policy. The McCain subsidy for imported oil consumption—his “gas tax holiday” proposal—outdoes even Bush for a pro-oil-company policy.

Reverend Jeremiah’s style—his manners, his Jeremiad discourse—may yet shape the election. But style is but style, and content is content, and eventually wars—and elections—are waged about truth.

In February of 1860, there was a bitter fight on the floor of the United States Senate. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi responded “eloquently and persuasively,” according to one report, to an anti-slavery speech by William Seward of New York. Davis said that America should never break apart on the issue of whether the legal, then-Constitutional institution of slavery should be allowed to continue.

Davis “won” the debate. But within months the Civil War came. It had to come. Slavery had to end. A conflict so fundamental could not be papered over with gestures and speeches.

We will have to have a federal road policy—which means a federal oil policy, and a federal war policy. The debate over racial style will go on as long as Reverend Wright is news. But eventually the debate, and the election, will be about the fundamentals.