The Importance of the West Virginia Primary
If you look at the demographics of the 2008 Presidential election, the Democrats are in a good position to take the White House. The population supported by the post-industrial sector of the economy—the high tech and the knowledge industries—have displaced the population supported by the manufacturing industries, and that means that states long thought out of play for the Democrats, including a number lost last time around, can turn Blue this time out. Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, and even Florida qualify. Northern Virginia has become a suburb of the District of Columbia and Florida is the home of a number of universities and not just old age communities. Colorado’s population center is in Boulder and Denver, where the tech is very high. Even North Carolina, especially if Obama is the candidate, is a possible Blue state because of Ashville and the Research Triangle. The Rust Belt states, for their part, are also on the move to high tech industries, and so Pennsylvania should stay Democratic, and Ohio may become so, despite the reluctance of white working class voters to support Obama.
The trouble with demographics, though, is that people do not vote for generic candidates. A general election is mano a mano. Obama has to sell himself to the voters as a plausible President, even though he is clearly progressive in his political views, because he has a strange biography subject to distortion as well as because he is, not to put too fine a point on it, a Black candidate. (It gets you in trouble these days if you are a politician to say that, though pundits are allowed to cite the percentage of his support among black voters and his lack of support among white working class voters. Pundits should have been ashamed of themselves for having treated Hillary’s remark that hard working white Americans are in her corner as a slur because it was a supposedly implicit comparison with non hard working Black Americans when everybody knows, unless they are pundits, who are allowed to forget what they know, that “hard working” is a euphemism for people who get their hands dirty when they work, a comparison to middle class and upper class people like pundits and executives who don’t get their hands dirty and so are not treated, according to working class apologists, as people who work hard at all, rather than as people who work hard in a different way.)
The remaining case for Hillary is that she can reach those hard working voters and Obama can’t and that a Democrat can’t win without them. There is something to her case. John Kennedy knew that to legitimize his campaign to be the first Catholic President, he would have to win a primary in an overwhelmingly Protestant state. He chose West Virginia as the battleground because it was and is so overwhelmingly Protestant. That was the make or break primary for him, and he did win it, though only by pulling a number of tricks that I still feel more than queasy about. He brought in Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. to campaign for him. That was a stretch, but still acceptable. According to reports, he also had a mob boss bring in money, and that was not acceptable, though the JFK historians, like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who probably knew more than he ever let on, did not take note in his adulatory biography of Kennedy of what took place in West Virginia. Shame on you, Arthur. You can sign up to a candidate, but once you are an historian, you can never recuse yourself from being one.
The importance of the West Virginia primary is that Hillary won it by forty-one points, and so the West Virginia voters soundly rejected Obama. It doesn’t matter if their motives were bad or if Obama chose not to campaign there or if he will get the nomination anyway. The truth of the matter is that Obama has not proven himself able to win a major state which is overwhelmingly white. Yes, he has caucus victories in overwhelmingly white states, but that is no test because the numbers voting in caucuses are too small to treat as an indication of anything but local organizing. Yes, he won Minnesota, which is very white, and also happens to be the most liberal state not on the East or West Coast. He hasn’t tackled a state tough for him to win and come out ahead.
For me, last Tuesday was enough. Somehow I decided, as people do when they make qualitative judgments, that Hillary’s long shot had become just too long. Now it is time to figure out how to regard Obama’s weaknesses in experience as a kind of strength, and how his flighty rhetoric has some meaning. It is also time to reconfigure the electoral map so that he has a chance of winning it, which means to do something other than what he has done, which is sound above the fray, which will not wear well once the Republican machine attacks and he has to keep saying he is not a Muslim. (I suggest a rhetoric which says McCain must be ashamed of the emptiness of his own candidacy if the best he can do is lightly distance himself from the people who mount Swift Boat attacks.)
It is more important for Obama to find a way to neutralize the sentiment of those who are against him by borrowing from Hillary’s playbook and crafting programs that will help out working class whites. Perhaps the ticket is some sort of large scale assistance to green industries or a large writeoff on the purchase of extremely fuel efficient cars that could be provided in the next few years if the incentives are there. Raising CAFE standards for 2025 does nothing for anybody now, much less help with the oil crisis, but a severe drop in oil prices would quickly enough pay for federal rebates for extremely fuel efficient cars. Something dramatic; something exciting to use against a John McCain who seems to be doing a great deal of heavy lifting when he manages to declare that his opposition to global warming went back as far as 2002 or 2003. Global warming is yesterday’s issue; green industries, including green cars, are today’s issue.
Obama, in short, has to take the fight to McCain rather than rest on the glory of having become the Democratic Party nominee. Whether he is up to the task will show what kind of President he would be. McCain is counting on him not to be able to rise to the occasion. We shall see.