There’s a strange fork in presidential politics where generally liberal white women say that they like Hillary Clinton, but wondered why she stayed with the man – and somewhat conservative white men say they like her because she stayed.
The second group is more politically significant. If Clinton is nominated, liberal women will surely come around. But white working men, thought a lost cause for Hillary, may be up for grabs. These are the guys who started to bolt the Democratic Party in the late ’60s – about the time country star Merle Haggard began singing about unpatriotic hippies.
You may have heard that Haggard is back with a song called “Hillary,” which says, “Let’s put a woman in charge.” But it’s most potent line could be that she “kept her head high.” Getting beaten up by powerful men is not an uncommon theme in country music – or experience among its working-class fans.
The big story of the 2006 election was white Catholic men returning to vote for Democrats. Could white Protestant men be the next group to start moving out of the GOP? From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, white men have propelled Republicans into the Oval Office. They are now a third of the electorate, so Democratic success in converting even a small percentage of them could spell victory in 2008.
Of course, “up for grabs” is hardly “in the bag.” Haggard himself recently told NPR’s “On Point With Tom Ashbrook” that he has not yet fully committed to Clinton.
Furthermore, his interest in Clinton’s candidacy seems tied more to Bill than to Hillary. That’s right there in the song’s ending: “The country owes it to Hillary/And Hillary owes it to Bill.”
Yes, there’s a nostalgia for the Clinton years, when the worker’s income rose alongside the boss’s. Reagan Democrats who lost health coverage along with their factory jobs must now be wondering whether “HillaryCare” – the universal coverage plan for which the right wing demonized the then-first lady – was such a bad idea after all.
Democrats wishing to attract white male voters should sit down for daily coffee with their new senators, Jim Webb of Virginia and Montana’s Jon Tester. They’ll explain why Democrats always polled so well on the issues, but then lost the white male vote. One big reason was their attachment to racial preferences.
Democrats have wisely retreated from that questionable social policy, but they should note that tolerance of illegal immigration raises similar grievances among white, black and even many Latino workers. Lower-skilled workers see an open border as the power elite’s weapon against them. It cuts the price of their labor or, worse, replaces them altogether.
On the NPR show, Haggard cited illegal immigration – which Bush and other cheap-labor Republicans have effectively endorsed – as a sound reason to leave the GOP. Democrats will ignore the issue at their own peril.
The Clinton campaign is very careful to make it about Hillary, not Bill. But let’s be real: Many of the changes that followed the Clinton era have been unkind to blue-collar workers. A restoration might turn things around a bit.
In a recent song about lost America, Haggard complains of “Wal-Mart all the time, no more mom and pop five-and-dimes.” Wal-Mart was already on the rampage in the Clinton years. But when the discount chain urged its suppliers to close their U.S. factories and move to China, Democrats did not say as Republicans do: “That’s OK. Lower prices are great for the workers.”
The little guy was allowed to have a point of view during the Clinton presidency – and the white working stiff is beginning to remember that.
©2007 The Providence Journal Co.