U.S.

Clift: Edwards, Obama and Working-Class White Men

John Edwards called Barack Obama on Tuesday night. "I have your back," he told the presumptive nominee, offering his official endorsement. With the cable media pundits obsessing over Obama's inability to win white, non-college-educated voters, Edwards saw the Democrats taking a detour into the kind of warfare among themselves that could hurt them in the fall. His endorsement, delivered at a spirited rally Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., right at the start of the network evening news, bumped Hillary Clinton's big victory over Obama in West Virginia from the lead story and gave Obama a much-needed entrée to voters who could hold the balance of victory in November. 

Whether the term is Reagan Democrats or NASCAR dads, they're euphemisms for the white men who deserted a party they thought focused too much on the rights of blacks and women. No Democratic candidate for president has won a majority of the white vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Bill Clinton came close, but with Ross Perot in the race siphoning off votes, even Clinton with his natural affinity for lower-income working-class folks, people he grew up with and understood, fell short when the votes were counted. In an election season focused on race and gender, it's ironic that white male workers have emerged as the most prized cohort.      

Politics is all about timing, and Edwards's endorsement couldn't have come at a more opportune moment. He is the embodiment of the working-class message that has eluded Obama and that has become the core of Hillary Clinton's campaign. As he said repeatedly during his own campaign, he is the son of a mill worker, the first in his family to attend college. It wasn't that long ago that the pundits were asking why Edwards was staying so long in a race where most election nights he was finishing a distant third. Now he's been out long enough to seem like a fresh face, and it's not too big a stretch to imagine him as Obama's running mate. Why would Edwards want to run for vice president twice? If the second time around is on a winning ticket, it's his best and perhaps only route left to the White House. He's vetted, there won't be any surprises or $400 haircuts, and his "Two Americas" theme appeals to the Clinton working-class Democrats who might otherwise defect to John McCain. At the very least, he's staked a claim on a cabinet position in an Obama administration.
 
These downscale working-class voters are not just one constituency among many.  They're the balance of power, the swing voters in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, electoral-vote-rich states the Democrats need in November. According to Phil Dine, a labor reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, they won't just stay home in November: they'll vote for McCain, making them double trouble. Dine's new book, "State of the Unions," lays out how and why these disaffected workers could swing the '08 election, and what Democrats need to do to reclaim them with an economic message rooted in values of fairness and social justice. Edwards best articulated their concerns in Iowa and beyond, but his rhetoric took on an angry tone that sounded like class warfare and left voters cold.

Dine doesn't see how Obama comfortably absorbs Edwards's economic populism without compromising his own message. Obama talks about change and unity, lofty principles that don't speak to the challenges of everyday lives. "Working people don't give a damn about unity," says Dine. "They want somebody who'll fight for them. They don't care about the broad reform of politics." They like Clinton because she's scrappy, and West Virginia voters are the epitome of scrappy, hardworking people. She has more of a built-in appeal to these voters, based in large part on their affection for her husband, and they rewarded her with a 41 point margin of victory over Obama in Tuesday's primary. The state is 97 percent white, but as Dine points out, Obama won Iowa, which is 96 percent white. "A lot of voters talk about race, but it's more about who's in touch with your values," he says, resisting any implication that blue-collar people are more afflicted with racism than other voters.

Obama is elegant and cerebral, fine attributes but not a good fit with the hard-hat culture, and his stump speech lacks bread-and-butter basics. Edwards helps Obama but doesn't change the basic equation as Dine sees it. "I don't know if he can adopt confrontation and a class-warfare message and still talk about unity and rising above it all," says Dine. "It's not a unifying message. It's a rallying call for half of America--for people who get the short end of the stick." Edwards has his back. Now it's up to Obama to find his connection to a part of American culture that Democrats for too long have neglected.