Mr. Obama’s effort to master a plain-spoken and blunt language that extends back centuries in Pennsylvania is accompanied by no small stakes. Voters here, as in neighboring Ohio, where Mr. Obama lost the white and aging blue-collar vote, tend to elect politicians whose language rarely soars and whose policy prescriptions come studded with detail.
“The problem with talking about hope all the time is that these are not hopeful lands; Obama is talking change to people who equate change with life getting worse,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic Party consultant who has studied the political culture of these working-class states with a Talmudic intensity.
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s Democratic rival, has studied this argot. Her style of declamation tends toward that of the school valedictorian, but she grounds her talks in detail after detail after detail — her plan for stanching foreclosures, for tuberculosis, for tax breaks and so on and on, every program coming with a precise dollar sign attached.
A thrill these talks are not, but G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, noted that politics that attended to the precarious details of life could provide comfort to the hard-pressed.
“If you’re an unemployed steelworker, a former coal miner, you want to know about job training, who pays your health care,” Dr. Madonna said. “Obama’s speeches are uplifting but without much specificity, and that’s a tough sell for working people who don’t live in a world of ideas.”
News flash, Sherlock — politicians always tailor their messages to their audiences. You know, politicking. Because they are…wait for it…politicians. If they don’t do so, they generally lose. And they don’t like that.
Further, if you think hope can’t be a powerful tool, then you weren’t paying attention to the persuasive pull that John Edwards had during the 2004 campaign with blue collar folks. Or that John Kennedy had here in the land of blue collar voters during the 1960 campaign — which is still regarded as one of the finest political outreach campaigns ever waged in a presidential race here in WV. (Truly, some folks still keep photos of Kennedy on their wall. I kid you not.)
People here are practical precisely because they have to be — soaring rhetoric on hope has to be tempered with realistic plans to make it happen. Because you can’t survive on hope alone, and anyone who has to struggle to make ends meet knows that all too well.
But that’s just common sense, kitchen table politics no matter where you are running. Just because we live in a rural area doesn’t mean we’re simple. And it doesn’t make us any different from any blue collar voters in any other part of the country. So stop writing us up as exotic rubes from the wayback machine — it’s insulting, and it’s appalling that somehow wanting both specifics on plans and lofty goals that inspire at the same time seems so foreign to you. It does, however, say a lot to me about the state of journalism these days.
There are real questions about whether Obama can win over the Archie Bunker voters in the Democratic party, whether Clinton has them at all, or whether they will stick to McCain like glue. But ginning up the debate on this solely as a "changing rhetoric" discussion? That’s just another elitist strawman waiting to be blown over.
We here in the hinterlands have dictionaries and thesauruses, too. We’re just smart enough not to use them for self-esteem boosters, and instead get down to more important business like tackling poverty or job loss or health care or whatever else is on our increasingly troubled plates. Real world Americans are interested in the things that impact their daily lives…not esoteric discussions on vocabulary choice and Luntzian bargains. Isn’t it time the media learned that lesson, too, instead of playing right into the consultancy’s bread and butter?
(YouTube of JFK speaking in WV during the 1960 primary.)