McCain's Keys to the Keystone State
"Pennsylvania is a John Wayne state, not a Jane Fonda state."
-- Former PA Gov. Bob Casey
April 22, 2008, was supposed to be a bloody battle across the vast Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It wasn't. Despite seven weeks of polls reporting that the state was a dead heat, Hillary Clinton blew away Barack Obama by over 200,000 votes.
Not only were Pennsylvanians enraged at being called "bitter" by a candidate speaking in America's wealthiest city, but many Hillary fans thought sexism was rampant, as is believed currently. I journeyed along the southwestern part of the Keystone State on a brilliant fall weekend to discover more.
Based on my travels this election season, I feel confident in saying that, aside from the "white guiltists" and the liberal intelligentsia, most Americans over 30, of all political stripes and religious affiliations, are morally conservative. While they may differ on abortion or gay marriage, the vast majority seek to enforce tighter borders, keep their families safe, get honest news, lower their taxes, and rid themselves of programs and policies that they feel are antithetical to how we became the world's superpower. This is true in Indiana where I live, in my native California, and it sure as heck is true in 99% of Pennsylvania.
In 2008, most Pennsylvanians are not concerned with whether "America is ready for a black president," but rather, whether the next leader will be honest with them and keep our nation prosperous. Others are miffed by their own congressmen deeming them redneck bigots. Some also may wonder why Obama's two books are hagiographies of himself and his father, instead of his "typical white" grandparents, who, after his mother left him to pursue her studies in Asia, raised him, and worked hard to put him through the most exclusive prep school in Hawaii.
"This year's election will come down to whether or not Americans can feel comfortable with Barack Obama as our next president," said Michael Barley, spokesman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, in an email to me. "He lacks experience, and now that he is finally beginning to be challenged by the mainstream media, Americans are seeing that his plans lack substance."
Much to the chagrin of the pro-Obama media, Hollywood, snooty Brits, the French, envious "feminists," yuppies, and even some conservatives, Sarah Palin entered the fray. From week one, the strong-willed and telegenic hockey mom took aim at Obama, saying people in small towns like the one she grew up in "don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening."
Seeing a female on a national Republican ticket caused the Democrats to become apoplectic. They panicked, espoused hatred, made up stories, and called her names. They hid out at her rallies. Professors gave assignments to "critique" her, and juvenile journalists mocked her "accent" while tainting her photos. As they ignored the mishaps of their own female leader and their nominee, it seemed Democrats truly believed Palin was running for president -- not second in command.
During her convention speech, watched by nearly 40 million Americans, cameras picked up a woman and her infant holding a Pittsburgh Steelers "Terrible towel" with "Pennsylvanians for Palin" written across it, along with "we're not bitter." Writers who impiously compare Palin to al-Qaeda may not understand this "extraordinary attitude," but many do, even some abroad. Despite some hiccups along the way, if you looked up "gumption" in the dictionary, there'd be a picture of the Alaska governor.
The Washington Times has compared Sarah Palin's popularity to John McCain's hero Teddy Roosevelt. And those who know history realize there are startling similarities in the VP nominee's lifestyle, attitude, and experiences with political reform to our 26th president.
Despite the elites who condescendingly refer to her as "folksy" -- as New Yorkers did upon "outsider" Teddy's return from years of hunting in the Dakotas -- this term has positive connotations to most Americans. In 1900, the DC establishment also mocked Roosevelt for believing he could be vice president in his early forties. Gov. Palin continues to draw enthusiastic crowds wherever she speaks and has even silenced a few of her harshest critics.
"John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate has reinvigorated the conservative base. We have seen a large number of them coming into our centers to sign up to volunteer," Barley told me. "Pockets of 'Reagan Democrats' in northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania, because of the sharp contrast between Obama and McCain, will vote Republican this year."
Mitch Hinton is a Pittsburgh resident and Vietnam vet with U.S. flag tattoos on both shoulders. I spoke with him at length when I detoured to view the moving United 93 Memorial near rural Shanksville. He voted for John Kerry, but now supports McCain, claiming "there are a lot of vets who fear the inexperience and radicalism of Obama. Our city already has a child (28-year-old Luke Ravenstahl) as mayor; we don't want one for president." The other folks with whom I chatted at the memorial concurred that Obama remains an enigma, even after nearly two years on the campaign trail.
"The Commonwealth is won or lost on the backs of blue collar people, and Obama lost these voters among his own party here by a huge margin in the primaries," Hinton continued. "He's done nothing to solve his problems with these voters since; not just here but with folks all across the Rust Belt. Look at all the McCain yard signs as you drive toward Pittsburgh." He then went off to "chop wood" before evening mass on that crisp fall day. Indeed, the drive west toward Pittsburgh did show about a 20:1 ratio of McCain/Palin signs to Obama/Biden. Only in the small college towns of Greensburg and Latrobe did I see a flurry of Obama signs on U.S. Highway 30.
As we know, Joe Biden hails from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and his current home in Wilmington is a Tiger Woods drive from the state line. In choosing the Delaware senator and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, Obama moved to shore up a résumé shortfall (lack of foreign policy knowledge, though Biden's "experience" has been wrong more often than not) and ameliorate his party's weakness among military hawks, Catholics, and the working class.
On that front, Abe Amoros, Pennsylvania Democratic Party communications director, confidently cites recent trends.
"Last year, 13 traditionally Republican counties in the state voted Democratic. We are confident that we'll be able to make greater strides this year as a result of the enthusiasm generated by Sen. Obama," he told me.
And as for Hillary's vote?
"Hillary supporters are offended by the Palin factor. While a tiny portion of them will vote for McCain, it's not enough to get excited about. And when I say 'tiny,' I mean less than five percent."
Amoros may be guilty of wishful thinking though, as many studies prove otherwise.
Sen. Biden has always been considered a risk due to his reputation as a one-man gaffe machine, and his debate performance suggests those concerns are well founded. Once regarded as a centrist, Biden was rated as the third most liberal member of the Senate by the National Journal in 2007. His abortion views as a Catholic though, seem most disconcerting.
Considering current economic woes, abortion had seemed a back-burner issue in 2008. But with the media's reticence to discuss the now-successful war in Iraq and Mr. Biden being a pro choice Catholic, it's back in the mix, especially in Pennsylvania -- a state that's more than 50% Catholic. Obama's pro-abortion views have been very well documented, and it's one area in which he's refused to move to the center, which has even irked black Americans who, by and large, are anti-abortion.
"Our Democrats are socially conservative voters that attend church regularly, hold their Second Amendment rights near and dear to their hearts, and Obama's comment [about clinging to guns and religion] took aim at two positions that are important to them," Barley countered. "Barack Obama is being viewed as an elitist, and that certainly doesn't bode well for him in these small working-class towns. They will be supporting McCain this fall because they just can't relate to Obama's extreme viewpoint."
On the "sanctity of life" topic, Jeff Jacoby reported that Obama has already set off some ire among Catholics in the Keystone State:
During a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania last March, Senator Barack Obama was asked about teenagers and sexually transmitted diseases. ... "Look, I've got two daughters. ... I'm going to teach them first of all about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby."
The Globe columnist explained:
If Obama had deliberately set out to appall pro-life voters, he couldn't have uttered four words more jarring than "punished with a baby." The equation of a new child with punishment -- even if the pregnancy was unintended -- set teeth on edge.
"The difference this year is the candidates. Bush appealed to the base, but many moderate voters did not support his candidacy in 2004," added Barley. "McCain is tailor-made to win Pennsylvania and we believe that will be more than enough to compensate for the Democrat vote coming out of Philadelphia."
Current Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell spent over a year campaigning for Hillary and, like the Clintons, is now engaged in exerting a token effort for Obama. He now seems worried about keeping the state blue.
"The state machine will not be mobilized for Obama. Word on the street is that Rendell was promised a cabinet position for his help to Hillary," Pittsburgh resident Hinton told me. "He knows that if Obama goes down, Hillary's the de facto candidate in 2012." Hillary's erstwhile fans, and apathy within state party heads, could be the fulcrum for a surprising McCain win in the Commonwealth.
The Illinois senator's speeches, desultory and full of fumbles when lacking his trusted teleprompter, don't often resonate outside elite America, and regularly avoid specifics. To paraphrase Victor Davis Hanson on the topic, "a Gertrude in [Altoona] turns on the TV and sees thousands of Europeans (who habitually make fun of her country) applaud Obama -- and makes the logical assumption that they apparently think he is one of them, rather than one of us." Even if the media won't discuss it, "Gertrude" types constitute a huge voting segment of society, and they may wonder why the putative president has a long and amicable relationship with Bill Ayers, a man more supportive of al-Qaeda's talking points than America's. Even if big city liberals are preoccupied, Americans are fed up with, as Jennifer Rubin put it, "the dripping condescension and outright contempt" displayed by the media toward their lifestyles.
Speaking 80 miles west of Philadelphia, late in his 1984 re-election campaign -- in an area he deemed "the arsenal of the colonies" -- President Reagan said, "I was a Democrat for the better part of my life, but that was before they became the 'Blame America First' party."
If I only had a nickel or an Ed Luttwak piece on hand every time I heard words akin to Reagan's from a Republican. Indeed, Scoop Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, Bob Casey, and Harry Truman would look at today's Democratic landscape, along with their prevaricating media allies' endemic hatred, sanctimony, and hubris, and roll in their graves -- as might the Gipper.