I’ve been thinking for a while that this is what Bobby Kennedy would have called a “people with problems” election, and that the decisive four states will be where the tectonic shifts in the global economy have left the biggest cracks in American landscape: Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
I still believe this, and I’m delighted that the Obiden express will hit the heartland post-haste as the Barackopolis is being mercifully crated and shipped back to Caesar’s Palace. But I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t a nuance that our team should consider in finding their Rust Belt voice.
Specifically, it seems that there’s a difference between voters who are merely fed up and those who are truly frightened. I think about the difference between the wife who has had it with the shame and dishonesty of her husband’s infidelity, and the wife who has long suffered abuse at her husband’s hand. The former finally says, “screw it, I’m done,” and leaves. The latter usually stays because she’s too scared to reach into the unknown. However clear the pathology of her situation to the outside observer, she just can’t bring herself to do anything radical. Her world is just that upside down.
The last example of a “frightened” election might have been in 1968, when more and more of our troops were dying in a war which seemed less and less winnable. The Cold War continued to build momentum despite the world’s nuclear near-death experience of only five years earlier. And perhaps most of all, our cities seemed about to combust at any time, fueled by an admixture of racial animosity and violence which had precipitated the assassinations of three national heroes.
Fed-up elections are more common. The post-war and post-Watergate ascension of an unknown Southern governor comes immediately to mind. So does his replacement only four years later by a former screen actor who–in the face of international embarrassment and domestic stagflation–easily convinced the electorate that government was not the answer to their problems; it was their problem. 2004 would have almost certainly been a fed-up election had the junior Senator candidate been from New York rather than Massachusetts.
Fed up is 20% consecutive increases in medical insurance bills; frightened is the sudden disappearance of coverage because the company you retired from is in trouble. Fed up is rarely being able to buy your 13-year old the new shoes she wants; frightened is being afraid that she will never be proud of you.
I wrote about the similarities between the 1968 and 2008 elections in early July:
The front page of the June 25 Wall Street Journal painted this all in stark relief. The WSJ noted that closely watched Shiller index of housing prices had registered a recent decline with comparables only in the Great Depression. The article did not go on to state the obvious: that the houses which have declined most dramatically in value are those in the newest developments, are farthest from city centers, and are much more likely to be inhabited (or recently disinhabited) by people who bought them with predatory loans they could not service.
In a second story, the WSJ reported that the Consumer Confidence Index now stands at 50.4, its lowest level since 1992. And as if to further my case that the Summer of 2008 is more like the Summer of 1968 than we’d like to admit, the CCI’s measure of confidence 6 months ahead stands at its lowest level since….1967, the first year the Conference Board conducted the survey. These are absolutely staggering indications of the American public’s collective anxiety. A CCI score of 100 is indexed to 1985, just after the electorate overwhelmingly told Ronald Reagan that yes, thanks for asking, they did feel better off than they were four years prior. Twenty-three years later, with Bush relinquishing the helm we are half as confident as we were when Reagan began his second term. Half as confident. 1967 levels. This frigging country was exploding in 1967!!!
Add to the deepening economic bleakness Iraq, Afghanistan, and the recent return to a tv near you–after a generation-long hiatus–of the surly Russian Bear, and it’s not that much of a leap to accept my premise: that this is a frightened rather than a fed-up election, and it will turn on the fears of the people in states where the loss of manufacturing jobs has been most acute.
This is a problem, and here’s why: fed-up would bode well for a message of change, and for a hip, young, African-American candidate with witty, irascible, combed-over sidekick. Frightened bodes well for–in Obama’s own words–the guys who look like the other guys on the dollar bills.
If I’m right, it seems to me that the Obiden Express must adopt a tone which is different from the boot-the-bums tenor which has prevailed thus far. They must empathize with troubled voters at a much deeper level. They must prove in the most retail-politics sort of way not only that they can be trusted, but that they understand. And perhaps most of all, they must demonstrate the quiet competence that will be required to lead the nation out of its greatest economic distress since Gerald Ford, and perhaps even since Franklin Roosevelt.
Fed-up people want their world to get better. Frightened people do, too–but it’s more important to assure them first that their world won’t get any worse. The rhetoric which serves the former purpose is fiery and bold; the rhetoric which serves the second is measured and comforting. And most of all, such rhetoric comes only after a whole lot of quiet and very attentive listening.
If I’m right and this is a people with problems election, it may actually be time to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the volume on the ear trumpet. This is deadly serious business, and our side will need all the gravitas it can muster.