Saturday, October 9, 2010

West Virginia as Microcosm: Is It Really This Bad These Days For Democrats?

Revenge of the Hillary Voters

Rich Lowry

NR/October 9, 2010

Two-thirds of West Virginians approve of the job performance of Gov. Joe Manchin. In ordinary circumstances, that would be enough to get him any promotion he wants. Not in 2010.

Manchin trails Republican businessman John Raese in a key Senate race. As soon as he stepped off the state stage into a federal race, he became associated with Obama liberalism, a deadly virus against which personal popularity - and even moderation - provides only limited immunity.

Manchin has the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce, but so what? As long as he's a vote for a Democrat as Senate majority leader, he'll be an Obama enabler. Manchin has been reduced to plaintively showing reporters an old picture of himself with George W. Bush in the Oval Office. If he loses, he'll be a victim of the revenge of the Hillary voters.

In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton had persistent appeal among working-class whites, loosely defined as whites without college educations. As Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute notes, 94 percent of West Virginians are white, and only 17 percent of them have a bachelor's degree or higher. In the 2008 primary, Clinton beat Barack Obama in West Virginia by 67 percent to 26 percent.

Today, Obama's approval rating in the state is . . . 29 percent.

The continued disaffection of the white working class is the backdrop for the growing Democratic debacle in the heartland. Republicans could well win both a Senate seat and the governorship in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and the governorship of Michigan, in a rout. The party reputed to be exclusively a creature of the South after 2008 is on the verge of a Rust Belt sweep.

Democrats have undertaken an experiment in whether you can be the self-styled party of working people if you don't have much appeal to a swath of working people.

In Obama's case, the answer is "yes." At least it was in 2008. He lost the roughly 40 percent of the electorate that is working-class whites to John McCain by 18 points, but made up the deficit among other groups. In that context, the preference of working-class whites for Republicans over Democrats on the generic ballot by 22 points this year isn't alarming.

Obama running nationally conceivably can overcome that kind of gap. But an untold number of Democrats running in areas where working-class whites predominate can't, as a matter of sheer arithmetic. Many of these Democratic "majority makers" will be the sacrificial lambs of Obama liberalism.

According to Gallup, Obama's approval rating is still above 50 percent among blacks, Hispanics, voters between ages 18 and 29, moderates, postgraduates, singles, and easterners. He's below 50 percent among everyone else; and in the 30s among whites, voters 65 or older, and married people - exactly the voters who disproportionately turn out in midterm elections.

Liberals want to chalk this up to race. But in January 2009, when President Obama was as African-American as he is today, his approval rating was 63 percent among whites.

It's long been an occupational hazard of liberalism to get crosswise with working-class whites. Obama is particularly vulnerable because he combines the affect of Adlai Stevenson with the economic performance of Jimmy Carter. He came into office with working-class voters suspicious that he didn't understand their concerns and proceeded with an agenda - health care, cap-and-trade, and all the rest of it - that didn't address their concerns, and didn't work.

The lecturer-in-chief is left trying to explain an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent for the past 18 months. It used to be that hot-button cultural issues separated Democrats from the white working class. Now, their economic agenda has become radioactive, a grave political threat for the long term.

Obama famously boasted to a retiring conservative Democratic congressman that this year would be different from 1994, because Democrats had him at the top. Ask Joe Manchin, among many others, how that's working out.

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