When I started this column back in January 2001 (as a “Letter From Rockford”), the United States had just emerged from a presidential election that made this country look anything but united. Red and Blue, until then simply convenient colors used by the television networks to designate which party’s candidate had captured the electoral votes of each state, had become political metaphors representing, respectively, the values of the Middle American heartland—God, guns, lower taxes, the preservation of life, both in the womb and at its end—and the values, or lack thereof, of coastal America—New York, Hollywood, higher taxes, and rights modified by various adjectives, from abortion to gay to immigrants’.
As the 2004 presidential race drew to a close, every pundit was offering his predictions about whether Senator Kerry had overcome his liberal image enough to make inroads in Red America and whether President Bush had demonstrated sufficient leadership to do the same in the Blue. In the end, though, the map looked remarkably similar to that of 2000.
And so, after Senator Kerry’s concession, the Red versus Blue debates continued in earnest, bolstered by exit polls that showed that 22 percent of voters nationwide named “moral values” as the most important issue in the race. Seventy-nine percent of those voters had cast their ballots for President Bush. Karl Rove, a Bloomberg report claimed, had spent four years “cultivating church leaders who could help lure back to the voting booths the 4 million evangelical Christians who Rove believed had ditched Bush in 2000 because he had a drunk-driving record.”
Rove’s strategy clearly worked, but nowhere in the Bloomberg article is there any indication that Rove himself feels strongly about any of the issues that voters grouped under the label of “moral values”—abortion, “homosexual marriage,” euthanasia. In fact, there is no indication that Rove even acknowledges the concept except as a political tool, as his post-election appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, in which he tried to downplay the role of moral values in the election, showed. While the Bush campaign’s most important weapon was clearly the initiatives and referenda in 11 states banning “homosexual marriage,” Rove seems to have wanted to avoid that issue altogether, embracing it only once he realized how strongly it was playing on the ground.
In other words, Rove’s “moral values” strategy was pure Machiavellianism, although Machiavelli was undoubtedly a more moral man than Rove. The proof lies in the administration’s approach to “homosexual marriage.” The administration could have supported Indiana Congressman John Hostettler’s H.R. 3313, which would have removed the jurisdiction of the federal courts over any cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. Instead, it pursued a Federal Marriage Amendment that everyone knew had no chance of passing Congress. Everyone, that is, except for the voters on the ground, who would interpret the amendment’s failure the way that Rove wanted: George Bush understands your concerns, but the evil Democrats in the House and Senate want to force “homosexual marriage” on the American people.
If the administration had backed H.R. 3313 and put its weight behind a companion Senate bill, the drive for “homosexual marriage” would have hit a brick wall. That would have taken the wind out of the sails of the state initiatives and referenda, however, possibly reducing turnout or, worse, allowing voters to elevate the economy, which 20 percent of voters named the most important issue, to first place. And that would have spelled disaster for the Bush reelection campaign.
When the economy is named the most important issue by a plurality of voters, as it was in 1992, incumbent presidents lose reelection. That clearly would have been the case here. Ohio’s “homosexual marriage” referendum turned out voters for President Bush, even though only three percent of Ohio voters characterized the economy as excellent and 38 percent, as good. That’s not surprising: One quarter of all jobs lost over the past four years have been in Ohio, and, as in the rest of the industrial Midwest, those jobs have disproportionately been higher-paying manufacturing positions with decent benefits.
Which brings us back to that infamous map. Other than a few neoconmen such as David Brooks and Jonah Goldberg, on whom the words “moral values” have the same effect as holy water on a vampire, most Republican strategists recognize a good thing when they see it. Lacking even a rhetorical difference from the Democrats on almost any other substantive issue, the Republicans hope to parlay this rhetorical difference into a greater “moral majority.” Never mind that, as I wrote in this column in March 2001:
At the end of George W. Bush’s four or eight years as President, Roe v. Wade will still be the law of the land, more states will have recognized homosexual “marriages,” more American businesses will have moved overseas, more women and homosexuals will have joined the military, more Americans will have died while killing innocent civilians in countries we have no business attacking, multiculturalism and bilingualism will have increased their hold on American education . . . , and immigration—both illegal and legal—will have increased.”
While voters concerned about the economy tend to demand tangible results, many—perhaps most—voters concerned about moral values seem willing to settle for rhetoric.
Democrats, for the most part, have tried to downplay the role of “moral values” and have run the electoral map through a series of greater and greater revisions to “prove” that the country is primarily Purple, not Red—and everyone knows, of course, that Purple is just a deeper shade of Blue. The broadest expanses of Purple, however, show up not in the Northeast and on the West Coast—the true Democratic strongholds—but in the Upper Midwest, an area that neither party really understands, but one which, for the foreseeable future, will be the primary battleground in presidential elections.
And it is here in the Upper Midwest that Red and Blue as a moral metaphor breaks down. The states of the Upper Midwest share the values of the mass of Red states to their south and west. (Since the states of the Upper Midwest have higher concentrations of Catholics and Lutherans, there are some differences, but the differences are not as great as those between the Upper Midwest and the other Blue states.) And that’s largely true even within large Midwestern cities, which John Kerry won by a healthy margin, because a sizable percentage of the white residents of those cities are the “Reagan Democrats” of yore, a significant number of whom Bill Clinton managed to woo back home. The Rust Belt continues to trend Democratic for other reasons, primarily economic. The past four years have been devastating to the industrial Midwest. The next four years hardly look better, and not simply because President Bush was reelected. On trade and other economic issues related to manufacturing, the Democratic Party today is simply a pale reflection of the Republican Party. Neither even begins to approach the modicum of economic realism that marked the first six years of the Reagan administration, before the neocons and the free-trade ideologues and multinational corporations won out.
It is only fair to point out that manufacturing, like the rest of the economy, was hit hard by the terrorist attacks of September 2001. In April of that year, however, I wrote a column entitled “A Month in the Life of the Industrial Midwest,” in which I chronicled the job losses in the Rockford area for one month, starting on January 21, the day after President Bush’s inauguration: “In 30 short days, the Rockford area lost two businesses, well over 4,000 manufacturing jobs, and over 100 retail sales positions.” And that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg: During President Bush’s first term, the Rockford area lost over 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs (over 11,200, at last count) and dozens of manufacturers, large and small.
This dramatic decline in manufacturing began in the middle of 1998, but the problem, not only for the long-term economic health of the industrial Midwest but for the political viability of the Republican Party, is that the Bush administration really did nothing to stem the tide. In fact, the steel tariffs that the administration imposed arguably accelerated the decline of small manufacturing, since, over the past 20 years, domestic steel production has dropped to the point that it cannot meet domestic steel consumption. Small manufacturers, reliant on foreign steel, found that the tariff increased their costs to the point that they could not compete with foreign manufacturers, who didn’t have to pay those tariffs.
During the campaign, President Bush made numerous stops in manufacturing towns in the Upper Midwest, and his message was always the same: The economy is going through some changes. Change is good, but change is hard. You can be retrained. Don’t worry if you only have enough savings to pay your mortgage for the next three months: Washington is here to help.
During a live broadcast of Bush delivering one of these speeches in Janesville, Wisconsin, a few weeks before GM announced a four-week layoff at its assembly plant there, President Bush explained that his administration’s economic plan for manufacturing consisted primarily of funds for retraining, more support for vocational training at community colleges, and increased Pell Grants. As he droned on, the applause decreased dramatically, even though the speech was delivered to an invitation-only crowd of local Republicans. Imagine the effect it had on the swing voters—those Reagan Democrats who know that their days building Suburbans at the GM plant are numbered.
Assuming that the Northeast and the West Coast remain Blue (and, in all likelihood, they are going to become even Bluer, as their moral decline continues), a Republican presidential candidate needs to win at least one state out of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Pennsylvania (which, in its western half at least, is closer economically and morally to the industrial Midwest than to the Northeast). That means appealing to those Reagan Democrats. “Moral values” will obviously be an important part of that appeal (as they were for Reagan), but ignoring the importance of a sound economic policy based on manufacturing and relying primarily on moral issues to drive the vote in these states is a risky proposition. As Tom Fleming has noted, as a political issue, “homosexual marriage” seems to have spawned more public opposition than abortion has in the past. Part of that may simply be the novelty of it all, but more likely it has to do with abortion being essentially a private act, while “homosexual marriage” is nothing if not public. By 2008, however, the issue of “homosexual marriage” is likely to be resolved, one way or another. There are cases already making their way up through the federal courts, and it would take some rather tortured legal reasoning for the Supreme Court not to accept the Full Faith and Credit argument and legalize homosexual marriage everywhere. (In fact, this is a case where strict constructionism and Justice Scalia’s fondness for “democratic solutions” works against traditional morality.) That wouldn’t mean that every state would be required to perform “homosexual marriages”; each would, however, have to recognize “homosexual marriages” contracted in other states.
With “homosexual marriage” thus removed from the front burner pretty definitively, abortion would likely become the dominant moral issue once more, and, unless the industrial Midwest has experienced an economic recovery that is not yet really evident on the horizon, the entire region may return to the Democratic fold. Again, it wouldn’t be because Midwesterners—even urban ones—are like the soulless Manhattanites and Californians who gave their votes to John Kerry but because the very public and visible economic issues are likely to trump the more private issue of abortion.
And so, while the Republican Party is still crowing about its victory, it may already have planted the seeds of its future defeat. Of course, it might continue to win elections for a while, aided by a national Democratic Party that now appears as stupid as it is evil, but if it cannot—or, more correctly, will not—provide the Reagan Democrats in the industrial Midwest with an economic policy to match its moral rhetoric, the decline of manufacturing may well accelerate, driving these critical states further into Democratic arms. Unless the Republican Party stops wrapping its pandering to multinational corporations in the high-sounding rhetoric of an ideological commitment to free trade and truly begins to address the continuing economic devastation of the industrial Midwest (and, by extension, the rest of the country), future presidential election maps are likely to look pretty much the same as they did this year—only a little more Blue.