Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton criticized Barack Obama, her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, for his response when asked why he was having a hard time gaining traction with Rust Belt and rural voters:
Obama said: “You go into 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 going to regenerate, and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Clinton rejected Obama’s characterization. “The people I know don’t cling to religion because they’re bitter,” she said. “People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.”
How ironic that those same gun-clinging, immigrant-fearing, Bible-thumping voters that Clinton vigorously defended eight years ago are now leaning toward Donald Trump — not her — for the same reasons that Obama cited: For them not much has changed. Their towns have not recovered from the recession. Many of the labor-intensive jobs they always depended on have either moved overseas or been rendered obsolete by technology.
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Clinton may be enjoying leads in several national polls, but she has work to do in states with sizable populations that resemble Obama’s description. That includes Indiana, whose governor, Mike Pence, is Trump’s running mate. Clinton trails the Republican ticket by a 47-36 percent margin in Indiana. Polled voters there, by a 53-41 percent margin, say they trust Trump more to create jobs and boost the economy.
Trusting a dubiously successful businessman whose track record includes a litany of bankruptcies and broken dreams is a big gamble for the Americans Obama talked about in 2008. He apologized for being so blunt, but he never backed away from his assessment. “People feel like Washington’s not listening to them, and as a consequence, they find that they can only rely on the traditions and the things that have been important to them for generation after generation: Faith. Family. Traditions like hunting. And they get frustrated.”
Even Trump finally seems to understand that to win he has to do more than preach to a choir that will support him come hell or high water. With less than 2 percent of African Americans expected to vote for Trump, he added a consultant to his campaign team last month to help him get more black support. That she is Omarosa Manigualt, a former contestant on his reality show “The Apprentice,” makes you wonder how serious he is, but he seems to be making an effort.
Instead of similarly engaging in tokenism, Clinton should do the hard work it will take to win the votes of those “spiritually rich” Americans who hold her in such low regard. She may win few converts. Too many no longer believe they can count on any Democrat to defend how they live and worship. But it wouldn’t hurt Clinton to shed some the Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher persona she has honed over the years and show more of the “It Takes a Village” emotion that hurting families and communities across America want to see in a president, too.
Harold Jackson is the editorial page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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