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Off the bus: blue-collar Democrats ditch Clinton.

For a full third of this century, Larry Solomon has worked at a Caterpillar tractor plant in southern Illinois. Through the years, he has maintained a loyalty to his church, his family, and his union. It used to be that Solomon maintained a loyalty to the Democratic Party, too. But Bill Clinton has changed that.

"There's something like 127 billionaires in this country, and as far as I can tell, Bill Clinton has spent his entire Presidency catering to them," says Solomon, who proudly wears a United Auto Workers Union T-shirt. "I counted on Clinton to deliver on a few things for working folks in this country, but he let us down. He threw in with the billionaires, and he told the rest of us to go to hell."

As the Clinton camp gears up for the 1996 reelection campaign, the President and his advisers are still counting on Larry Solomon and other core working-class constituents. But the Clinton folks better watch out.

In working-class communities along the routes of his fabled 1992 bus trips, the Clinton record is not playing well, and there is a growing uncertainty about whether reelecting Bill Clinton really matters.

"You have a lot of diehard Democrats who thought, `This is the man, he's going to deliver,'" says Todd Loyd, a sewer-plant worker in the hard-scrabble southern Illinois town of Sandoval, where Clinton campaigned after earning the Democratic nomination in July 1992. "Now that he hasn't delivered, they're doubly disappointed."

While Washington commentators continue to mumble that Clinton won the Presidency as some kind of "new Democrat," his 1992 campaign was in fact powered by the rhetoric of economic populism, including attacks on Wall Street and the insurance industry and a promise to protect the vanishing American dreams of "folks who work hard and play by the rules but can't seem to get ahead."

Clinton's stump speeches in places like Wheeling, West Virginia, and Vandalia, Illinois, were thick with class-warfare rhetoric. Blue-collar crowds that frequently numbered in the tens of thousands answered Clinton with cheers and later with votes.

There's this mistaken assumption that Clinton won on a conservative message in 1992," says Robert Brenner, director of the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History at the University of Southern California. "Clinton won because he talked about creating a national healthcare system, about protecting American jobs, and all the other issues that working-class Americans were concerned about. He didn't say everything he could have, but he clearly sent signals that he was on the side of working people, and that was vital to his success, especially in the Midwest."

Pundits often portray blue-collar America as a constituency that begins in Detroit and ends around Cleveland, but the rivers of working-class consciousness run wide and long, through towns like Camden, York, Youngstown, Evansville, and St. Louis. Clinton recognized this in 1992, targeting a substantial portion of his campaign on nooks and crannies of industrial America that had not been visited by a Democratic Presidential candidate since Harry Truman's whistle-stop train reached the end of the line in 1948.

Clinton was rewarded with a victory that had been denied Democrats since 1976. While Presidential aides go on and on about how their man ran better than previous Democratic nominees in some suburban areas, the fact is that Clinton won on the basis of overwhelming votes from traditional working-class strongholds.

On bus tours that crisscrossed the industrial heartland during the summer and fall of 1992, Clinton forged a bond with working Americans. That bond enabled the candidate to harvest a bounty of electoral votes in a swatch of America that stretched from Pennsylvania to Missouri. In some regions, Clinton's success was startling. In southern Illinois, for instance, which had leaned toward the Republicans during the Reagan years, he actually won higher Democratic percentages than in Chicago's Cook County.

On the strength of that support, Clinton was the first Democrat to carry Illinois since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. By exciting core Democratic constituencies, he became the first Democrat to win Michigan since 1968, and the first to carry Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But in the factory towns that embraced him in 1992, Clinton may not be so lucky this time around.

"You know, in 1992, I told people they couldn't vote for George Bush because he was bought and sold by Wall Street," says Solomon. "Now people on the line come back at me and say, `Well, Clinton's bought and sold by Wall Street, too.' And I can't argue with them."

Clinton's support for corporate initiatives such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), as well as his failure to enact significant labor-law reforms, a national health-care system, or an industrial policy aimed at protecting American jobs, have left many of his 1992 backers deeply embittered.

Bob Wages, the president of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, who indicated more doubts about Clinton's first Presidential candidacy than any other international union leader, now says Clinton "turned out to be everything I thought he would be and worse."

Clinton aides acknowledge that the President won few friends among blue-collar workers with his arm-twisting efforts in behalf of NAFTA and GATT--both of which were backed by big business and universally opposed by labor unions. But they don't seem bothered by the disaffection. As one top Clinton campaign official says, "Union people may be angry as hell at us, but if it's down to Clinton versus Dole, what choice do they have?"

According to Wages, a lot of workers see a ballot topped by the names of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole as a choice between "a toothache and a headache."

In interviews with dozens of workers in communities visited by the 1992 Clinton campaign, many suggested that they don't plan to choose the lesser of two evils.

Though Clinton's poll numbers took a jump during his fall fight with Newt Gingrich over shutting down the federal government, that brief show of backbone did not undo the sense of betrayal felt by people like Lorell Patterson.

"I wrote Clinton a letter and told him that there's no way I am going to vote for him in 1996," says Lorell Patterson, of Decatur, Illinois, who has spent most of the Clinton Presidency locked out of her job at that city's giant Staley corn-syrup processing plant.

Patterson was a passionate Clinton backer in 1992. "He broke my heart," she says now. "As far as I'm concerned, he had a chance to stand with the working people or against us, and he chose to stand against us. He was against us on NAFTA. He was against us on GATT. He didn't come through for us on the striker-replacement bill. There's no difference between Clinton and the Republicans except maybe that some Republicans are honest enough to admit they're on the side of the rich."

So what if the choice does come down to Clinton versus Dole, or the even more daunting prospect of Clinton versus a more rabid conservative, such as Texas Senator Phil Gramm?

"If the Republicans put up someone who is worse than Clinton, then maybe the working people of America will finally stand up and say, 'Enough already,' and form a new party that represents our interests," says Patterson, who would like to see an independent labor party enter the field in 1996.

This idea that we're going to all jump on board the Clinton bandwagon just because his opponent is awful doesn't sell with me anymore," Patterson says. "I've heard the Democrats tell that lie too many times."

Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich says that the President has worn out his welcome with a great many American workers.

"I don't think the Clinton people realize how deeply frustrated a lot of working people in this country are," she says. "There's a real sense that Clinton lied to them in 1992, and they aren't going to be won back with a campaign that says, 'I'm a little bit better than a Republican.'"

US. Senator Paul Wellstone agrees.

"Working people in this country are looking for more than just a party label," says the Minnesota Democrat. "They're looking for a signal that the people asking for their votes are clearly on their side. It's not enough to say, `I'm a Democrat.' You have to say, `Look, when it comes to economic issues, I'm going to fight for your best interests. I'm going to work to ensure that everyone has access to a good job, a good education, and good health care.' If people don't hear that and if they don't believe it, then they're going to be susceptible to appeals based on fear."

Wellstone, who is himself seeking reelection in 1996, notes that many working-class voters may be passionate progressives on economic issues, but passionate conservatives on issues like abortion.

Robert Kelley, a leader of the Greater St. Louis Council of Labor, recently put together focus groups that measured the attitudes of union members in that traditionally Democratic region. While all of the workers expressed deep concerns about the economy, they also indicated fears about what they described as "the loss of family values." Kelley told the Chicago Tribune that just ten years ago it was virtually unheard of for his members to refer to themselves as "born-again Christians," but in the focus groups one in four adopted that label.

When a Democrat comes along with a platform that preaches genuine economic populism, including support for unions and family farms, advocacy of progressive taxation, and opposition to international trade deals that hasten the export of U.S. jobs, it is possible to hold social-conservative impulses at bay. But when a Democrat offers a tepid platform that fails to inspire populist sentiments, working people are increasingly open to Republican appeals on the basis of concerns about gun control, abortion, gay rights, and a host of other issues.

"Unless you have a class-based politics today, unless working people see their interests being represented, the right has an opening," says Brenner. "There are a lot of people who feel under attack economically and socially. If a candidate gets to them with an economic message, they will respond. But if that message isn't there, they may well respond to a conservative candidate who promises them lower taxes or an end to what they see as social decay."

That's certainly the case with Morris Delbridge, an Illinois tractor-plant worker and thirty-year UAW man, who, when asked why he voted for Clinton in 1992, responds with one word: "idiocy."

Delbridge says he would probably back Jesse Jackson if the veteran civil-rights activist were to challenge Clinton in the Democratic primaries or as an independent' But failing that, Delbridge says he likes the family-values rhetoric of Republican Alan Keyes, and he is also attracted to Pat Buchanan's combination of social conservatism and economic nationalism.

"I figure that if I can't find a candidate who will fight to protect my job, at least I can vote for someone who wants to get some morality back into this country," says Delbridge.

Is there any way Delbridge would vote for Clinton again?

"I suppose I might consider him if he said to the working-class people of this country: `Look, I screwed up,'" Delbridge says. "If he were to get off this NAFTA crap, put his heart and soul into passing some anti-strikebreaker legislation, and go after the rich on a few of these issues, I might be convinced."

At this point, however, there are few indications that the Clinton campaign will opt for anything resembling a populist message. Populists such as Jim Carville, who coined the 1992 campaign motto, "It's the economy, stupid," are gone for the most part, replaced by political mercenaries such as Dick Morris and Hank Sheinkopf.

Morris, who leads the President's "media-message" team for the 1996 campaign, is a shadowy figure who has worked for arch-conservative Republicans like Mississippi Senator Trent Lott. Sheinkopf, a master of negative campaigning who is likely to play a major role in shaping Clinton's television commercials, was the man behind a campaign by Los Angeles police officers to oppose reform initiatives in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating.

Just as Congressional Democrats were beginning to gain steam in their assault on Republican budget cuts last spring, Morris convinced the President to issue a balanced-budget proposal only slightly less harsh than that of Newt Gingrich and his compatriots. The move undercut House Democrats, made it difficult for moderate Republicans to break camp, and opened the way for narrow conservative victories on critical spending votes.

"Clinton put the Democrats in a box with the balanced-budget plan, and they still haven't gotten out,". says Brenner.

The Morris-Sheinkopf team followed up with a national ad campaign that portrayed Clinton as a crime fighter who is as willing as the most conservative Republican to execute people and pour money into prison construction.

Copies of David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman still circulate in the White House, and Clinton aides like to suggest that they plan to forge a comeback that will mirror Truman's 1948 upset of political expectations. But as they steer closer to the Republicans on issues, the Clinton team seems to be forgetting that Truman won in 1948 with one of the most populist campaigns in history, including that whistle-stop train trip, and promises of pro-labor reforms, taxes on the rich, and a national health-care plan.

After the GOP scored major Congressional victories in 1946, some of Truman's aides suggested that he should steer a course closer to that of the Republicans. Truman responded that, given a choice between a genuine Republican and an imitator, voters would invariably go with the real thing.

Larry Solomon agrees.

I'd vote for a Democrat who stood for working people, but I'm not going to vote for a Democrat who tries to out-Republican the Republicans," says the UAW man. "The problem is that Bill Clinton ceased to be the candidate of the working class on the day after we elected him. He's real sure we'll just forgive him, but after everything that working people in this country have been through these last few years, I'm not. sure we're in a forgiving mood."

John Nichols is an editorial writer for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and covers electoral politics for The Progressive.
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Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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