Did Hillary Crack the Working-Class Code?

The tragedy of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the presidency is that only after she had effectively lost the Democratic nomination did she find a language and message that gave people a reason to vote for her beyond the claim that her nomination was inevitable. By that point, though, the day-to-day proxy war with Barack Obama was so relentless that even her supporters may have missed the subtle argument and language that could be her lasting contribution to progressive politics.

While Clinton was winning primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, much attention was paid to the reasons that white working-class voters in those states were not voting for Sen. Obama. Yet in every one of those primaries, turnout was two to three times higher than in previous presidential primaries, and in several cases exceeded the total votes for the Democrat in the general election of 2004. Voters don't turn out in such numbers to vote against someone. Support for Sen. Clinton among these voters, male and female, old and not-so-old, was overwhelmingly positive and affirmative. Even those of us who didn't find her candidacy inspiring have to acknowledge that Clinton gave her voters hope, every bit as much as Obama inspired younger voters, African Americans, and voters in other regions.

The magnitude of her accomplishment deserves more respect and analysis than it has received. It is far from obvious that any Clinton, especially Hillary, should have become the vessel in which working-class voters placed their aspirations. That the more credible critic of NAFTA should have been the candidate whose husband signed the deal into law (and whose soft-populist "Putting People First" promises of public investment were traded away for fiscal stringency and narrow appeals to affluent swing voters) is nothing short of miraculous. And in the Bill/Hillary partnership, it was always he who took the role of earthy populist, while she played the suburban technocratic do-gooder -- a role akin to Obama’s today.

Moreover, few national Democrats in the last several decades were able to reach these particular white working-class voters. West Virginia and Kentucky were the states that swung most sharply to the right in the last eight years, and their brethren in southern Ohio were responsible for the inability of either Al Gore or John Kerry to capture that state. So while Clinton's success with white working-class voters was a distinctly regional one, it is a region of some importance, and her success there is an achievement unmatched by any recent national Democrat.

There are several possible explanations for Clinton's success and the massive turnout. Perhaps voters were mobilized in these states as elsewhere by hatred of Bush, the war and the economy, and once mobilized, Clinton was just a more comfortable, familiar choice. Another possibility is that it was all demographics -- that, even if she had changed nothing about her campaign, the older, whiter, and less educated populations of the later states would have delivered predictable victories. But the passionate commitment of her supporters suggests that there was more to it than that -- something in her words or policies that cemented their allegiance.

I doubt that it was her policy proposals, particularly not the narrow differences between her proposals and Obama's. In a few states, she tried to leverage her specific policy differences with Obama -- running ads on the individual mandate in health insurance in Wisconsin and on the gasoline tax holiday in Indiana -- but that tactic didn't lead to big victories. Where she won with a wide margin, her speeches and ads positioned mostly unsurprising policy proposals in the context of an argument about economic opportunity and fairness.

If Clinton's advantage did not come from what she said, it must have come from how she said it. To understand how she talked about these issues, I went through about a dozen of Clinton's speeches and television ads from after Super Tuesday. I ignored the tendentious remainders of the inevitability argument that had failed her in the first half of the campaign and instead asked, "What was distinctive about her economic message?"

I found two salient features: balance and modest aspirations. "I still have faith in [the American] dream. It's just been neglected a bit," Clinton said in a Pennsylvania TV ad. "They're not asking for anything special," she said of working-class voters in Zanesville, Ohio. "They're just asking for a fair shake. They're asking for a president who cares about them."

Her language created a sense of order in the world, which she described in terms of mutual responsibility, symmetry, and a return to a better past: "We're going to say, 'Wait a minute Wall Street; you've had your president. Now we need a president for Main Street,'" she said on April 14 in Pittsburgh. Here's a complicated version of the same argument, from a speech in Youngstown, Ohio, in February:

For seven long years we've had a government of, by and for the corporate special interests. They have been heard first, they have been heard loudest, and they have drowned out everyone else. And while you pinch pennies to stay within your budget, the president blew the bank on tax breaks for his friend and no-bid contracts for his cronies, borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars from China to pay for it all. He has signed a sub-prime mortgage on America's economic future and that's your future. And so when people ask me "why can't we get tough on China?" well, when was the last time you got tough on your banker? And so we have to get back to fiscal responsibility in order to get tough on China because we shouldn't be borrowing so much money from them.

There's a lot packed into the oscillations of that paragraph: Corruption, taxes, the idea of middle-class responsibility ("pinch pennies") contrasted with government irresponsibility, China, sub-prime mortgages, leading to a final, overarching call for "fiscal responsibility" -- the most modest and essentially conservative of goals. The passage reminded me of a famously decisive exchange in the 1992 presidential debates, when Bill Clinton alone understood that when an audience member asked "how has the national debt affected you personally," she was not asking literally about long-term fiscal policy, but instead using the term as a proxy for economic hardship generally. Hillary Clinton likewise seems to understand that "fiscal responsibility" means not only keeping the budget balanced but also taking an orderly, fair approach to the economy.

Note how different this language is, not just from Obama's, but from the hard populism of John Edwards. Edwards depicted a permanent struggle against a relentless enemy: the corporate special interests themselves, who "will never give up power without a fight." For Obama, there is a similar permanent challenge but also the hopeful idea that a lasting grand breakthrough might be possible.

For Clinton, the hurdles are lower -- there's a fight but no enemy. She argues that government has had its finger on the special interests' side of the scale for seven years, so change is merely a matter of moving the weight over to the other side. Hence her constant theme, used in almost every ad and speech since March 4, of returning to balance -- seven years of this, now seven years of that. Fairness for Clinton is not about resentment, equality, or even equality of opportunity. It's about a return to an imagined normal order, where individuals' thrift is matched by a comparable sense of responsibility on the part of their government. At other times, she uses the metaphor of a recent "detour," arguing that we need to get back onto the "main road" of economic policy.

This is an appropriate message for the candidate of restoration, but the way Clinton talks about the years of her husband's presidency is surprisingly modest. In her telling, he is no FDR or LBJ -- just a capable steward of the normal order. "The 90s were good for Pennsylvania" (or Ohio), she said often, linking the decade with the 1940s and 1950s, when, as she describes it, a man like her grandfather could support a family and build a good life on a single blue-collar income. Of course, the industrial base of Ohio and Pennsylvania has been declining steadily since the late 1970s.

Clinton also embraced the "work" part of "working class," aligning her own image as hard-working and relentless with the pride of her voters: "I was thinking ... looking at the sheet-metal workers today. How many mistakes were made before that perfection was reached? How much work had to be done before you felt confident in trusting that new assignment or that young sheet-metal worker? We could go through any kind of work any of you do and say the same thing. Well, it’s true about our government too."

Her ads and speeches of the latter campaign remind me of the poet William Carlos Williams or the artist Charles Sheeler in their evocation of order and purpose in even the dreariest corners of the mid-20th century industrial economy: "This is me in Scranton," she said, narrating her most memorable ad, "where my father was raised, and my grandfather worked in the lace mill. Every August, we’d pile into the car and head to our cottage on Lake Winola. There was no heat, or indoor shower, just the joy of family. I was raised on pinochle and the American dream."

This is in sharp contrast to the original "son of a millworker," John Edwards, who used his father's early years in the mill (in a very different place) as a story of economic hardship. It was only when his father became a manager, Edwards said, effectively making the leap from the working class to the middle class, that their lives improved, and it was this upward mobility that Edwards sought to restore. But upward mobility is unnecessary in Clinton's vision -- the dignity of work, "pinochle and the American Dream," can be as available to the line worker as the foreman.

Clinton's language navigates successfully around three related rhetorical problems that have been tormenting progressives over the last several years. The first, which Edwards tripped over, is the question of whether we're talking about the actual middle class, or the poor who aspire to be part of the middle class. Edwards' "Two Americas" was at first linked to his focus on poverty, but later he declared that the two Americas were really the very rich and everyone else. Clinton avoids this framework entirely.

The second dilemma is the question of whether to take an optimistic or pessimistic tone about economic opportunity. A quiet battle of ideas has been brewing in Washington. On one side, analysts at Third Way, a "strategy center for progressives" and home of the "Middle Class Project," argue that the median household has it pretty good and won't react well to gloomy rhetoric. The other side, led by the Economic Policy Institute, argues that the Middle Class is very far from all right and notes stagnating wages, increasing household insecurity, and high inequality. Neither is wrong, and yet finding a message that speaks to the optimism of those who are doing well, while hearing the frustration of those who aren't and the confusion of many others, is a challenge. Clinton's nostalgia pitch balances the two well.

Finally, Clinton's approach recognizes that "economic issues" are not a well-defined box that excludes the nonmaterial interests and conditions of life. Her speeches and ads make clear that rewarding work and a rich family life are as central to her economic vision as rising median wages. The normal order of life that she invokes has a moral dimension as well as an economic one.

It is tempting to describe this modest, nostalgic, moral language as conservative, and in many ways it is. Certainly it establishes a tone that has no trace of ideology and would not put off more conservative voters. Yet it contains within it policy proposals that are as progressive as any others that emerged in the presidential campaign: universal health coverage, investment in green technologies and public jobs, access to higher education, and a reversal of some of the Bush tax cuts.

The electoral success of Clinton's message -- even if limited to one region -- is a reminder that many working-class voters are uncomfortable with big promises or the permanent struggle. Yet both the idea that we need "balance" in the economy, and the notion that work itself has a value beyond its wage, are vital but easily forgotten liberal concepts. Clinton's economic language in the second half of the campaign worked particularly well for her because it said as much about the kind of person she is as the policies she would pursue. Still, to the extent that the language succeeded, it contains some useful clues about what white working-class voters in one critical region are comfortable hearing, and a way to talk about ambitious, liberal policies without scaring people off.

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