Wooing Those Reagan Democrats

Marie Cocco
Marie Cocco is Executive Director Strategic Communications for BlueCross BlueShield Association in Washington DC. Cocco was among the first journalists to report the emergence of a business-backed movement…
Marie Cocco

Patriotism won’t put food on the table. Admiring the pluck of a mother who hunts moose won’t keep the bank from foreclosing on the house.

I know, Sarah Palin has a personal and political style that aims to win hearts in working-class America. She has that aw-shucks, tilt-of-the-head, Ronald Reagan way about her. Heck, as a one-time hockey mom myself, I chuckled with recognition at her description of herself as a pit bull with lipstick.

If you talk to a Democrat who’s been around awhile — not someone who is reciting talking points for the Obama campaign — there is a nervousness that feels like the jitters of so many election years past. Some admit to being a bit freaked out by the potential impact of the one-two punch the Republican ticket now represents: John McCain with his iconic biography of military service and sacrifice. And Alaska Gov. Palin, with her “I’m-one-of-you” authenticity. “She not only energized the Republican base,” a longtime Democratic campaign veteran told me. “She is going to make a real run for the Reagan Democrats.”

The liberal bloggers who seem to spend hours each day (do these people ever work?) tapping their self-determined political wisdom into their computers hold Reagan Democrats in contempt, of course. Throughout the primaries, when working-class white voters in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio — and, yes, in the botched Michigan contest — voted for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, the reason the bloggers invariably cited was racism. They mocked Clinton’s argument that these very states were pivotal to anyone who hoped to win the electoral votes necessary to gain the White House. The counterargument of the chatterboxes — and indeed, of the Obama campaign — was that Obama would run a “50-state campaign” that would upend all the old calculations and coalitions.

Well, guess what? The electoral map for this fall looks, with few exceptions, an awful lot like it always has. Whoever wins two of these three big, aging and economically stressed Rust Belt states is likely to be the next president.

Obama comes to them with all the potential and all the liabilities he showed during the primaries. Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who is the state’s economic development director, says Obama has to throw away the podium and retire the big speech that proved so effective in securing the nomination, steps the Democratic nominee already has taken as he meanders from one town hall meeting to another. “You don’t connect with voters behind a podium or on ‘Meet the Press,’ ” Fisher told me in an interview. “You connect with voters when you talk to them directly.”

For all his factory and shop-floor visits, Obama has yet to gain traction with union voters — a pivotal Democratic constituency everywhere and more so in the industrial battleground states, according to several sources. Though labor leaders are fully on board, Fisher says, rank-and-file members don’t yet feel a “comfort level” with Obama. “I would agree that there’s still much work to be done,” Fisher says.

Obama, with his mixed-race heritage and his Ivy League demeanor, always was going to be a difficult sell. Now the job is tougher. Not only is Palin a potential cultural touchstone for those still smarting from Obama’s description of working-class voters as “bitter,” but she’s even got a husband who’s a member of the steelworkers’ union!

Still, the August unemployment report gave another disastrous accounting of the dire state of the economy, with unemployment soaring to a five-year high. Taxpayers now are on the hook for bailing out mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — the price tag is estimated to be at least $25 billion. The bailout should sound the dirge for the hands-off, a-tax-cut-is-all-we-ever-need approach to the economy espoused by the Bush administration and its Republican allies, including McCain.

McCain must make the breathtakingly hypocritical argument that those who have run things into the ground these past eight years should be trusted to dig us out. Obama has to run with the baggage he brings from the primaries — that is, the lingering resentment among white, working-class voters toward a candidate who seemed to believe he could win without them.

I’m not usually in the prediction business, but here is a sure bet: Whichever side loses is going to undergo one heck of an internal bloodletting.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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