In Harrisburg two weeks ago, one person called on by Obama chose not to ask a question. Instead a man who introduced himself as only Dennis told Obama, “Make a speech on patriotism because the Republican Party does not own the flag.” In Wilkes-Barre a few days later, Obama fielded a similar comment from a man who said, “I believe that this nation now has dangerously low levels of patriotism and national pride.... My question to you is How are we going to reestablish America’s reputation to Americans?”In other words: Can we make America great again?
At the link, you can read the full text and listen to the audio of what Obama said to the elite-donor types in San Francisco. I'll excerpt some of it and do some boldfacing. The idea is to understand how the Democrats lost Pennsylvania this year:
So, it depends on where you are, but I think it’s fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people feel most cynical about government.... [I]n a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it...Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton — challenging Obama for the Democratic Party nomination — tried to take advantage of the leaked speech, which seemed most damaging because it characterized guns and religion not as real loves of the people but as symptoms — along with hostility toward outsiders — of economic despair. Hillary's response, detailed in this contemporaneous NYT article, was to flaunt her own religious roots:
[O]ur challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
“I grew up in a church-going family, a family that believed in the importance of living out and expressing our faith,” she said at a rally in Indianapolis. “The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they’re bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.”And she grew up with guns too. Her dad taught her to shoot, and she understood that gun rights were believed in like religion:
“Americans who believe in the Second Amendment believe it’s a constitutional right; Americans who believe in God believe it’s a matter of personal faith.”Clinton and her surrogates were spreading doubt "about whether a young, African-American candidate can persuade white, working class Democrats that he represents their interests," as the NYT put it.
And, in fact, Hillary Clinton did go on to win the primary in Pennsylvania later that month. She got just over 54% of the vote, and that's about exactly what Obama got in the fall when he beat the GOP candidate John McCain in Pennsylvania.
So how did Hillary Clinton lose Pennsylvania, which had not gone Republican since 1988? I can't pretend to know the answer. I'm just pointing back to what Obama said in 2008 to those donors in San Francisco. He knew the Democratic Party had a problem in Pennsylvania, and he thought it was economic. His idea was: We need to show that progressive government can bring these sad people good things, personal economic benefits.
But as Mayhill Fowler said in her article, those people were asking for patriotism. And Trump was sharp enough to see the power of the message "Make America great again." How many rallies did he hold in Pennsylvania over the course of the primary and general election seasons? How many thousands of Pennsylvanians heard, directly, his message of patriotism and national pride?
And, of course, the people of Pennsylvania had experienced 8 years of Barack Obama trying to show that progressive government could bring them personal economic benefits. How — at this point — could Hillary win with an offer of more of the same? It seemed that her main idea was just to get out the votes of the urban demographic and overwhelm the bitter clingers.
The deplorable bitter clingers.