Take Bush Home, Country Roads

Craig Aaron

With its pundits and pollsters, bloggers and blowhards, Washington might be the worst place from which to gauge the political mood of the country. So when I need a political reality check, I head for West Virginia.

Mr. and Mrs. J—my grandparents—live in a small town near the Ohio River, a God-fearing, flag-waving, camouflage-wearing kind of place. Mr. and Mrs. J grew up poor, but now they’re retired and comfortable. They’ve got a satellite dish and an RV with walls that expand. They still cook the green beans with bacon (especially tasty for a kid raised Jewish—they’re my stepmom’s folks).

There’s never been a confederate flag in the back of their pickup, but let’s just say we don’t necessarily share the same views of guns, gay marriage or the Great Society.

So imagine my surprise when I was greeted at the door on Thanksgiving not with a hug or a drumstick, but a diatribe. Mrs. J handed me George W. Bush’s “résumé”—a four-page laundry list of the president’s deceptions and dubious achievements that circulated recently in cyberspace. (Sample line: “I have removed more freedoms and civil liberties for Americans than any other president in U.S. history.”) Though not the first time I’d seen it, this was last place I’d expect to find it.

Then Mr. J spoke in hushed tones about how “dangerous” the president had become. Theirs weren’t the voices of the “angry left”—with their giant puppets, hemp jackets and crazy socialist visions. A copy of Field and Stream sits on their coffee table. These two watch “Touched by an Angel.” They have quilts. If they’ve decided to back anybody but Bush in 2004, it’s a good sign.

Bush won West Virginia in 2000 even though the state is home to twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. The Dems took West Virginia for granted—and when the race got close, the GOP tarred Gore as a tree-hugger who was going to take away their guns. Neither of my grandparents voted for Bush last time (hell, they’ve never voted Republican). But they do share similar views and values with many of their neighbors who did.

Karl Rove should be concerned. West Virginia didn’t prosper that much during the Clinton boom, but it is definitely feeling the brunt of the Bush bust. With neither the factory jobs nor the National Guard units sent abroad coming back anytime soon, the president is vulnerable.

In my Thanksgiving dinner straw poll, no individual Democratic contender had made much of an impression. But our conversation confirmed that if they hope to take back West Virginia and the White House, the Democrats need a nominee who can appeal to the angry left and the exasperated middle. Pass the mashed potatoes. Hello, Howard Dean.

That’s not just the tryptophan talking. Some Republicans are saying the same thing. In a convincing strategy memo titled “Why Dean Can Win,” Oregon-based political consultants Hans Kaiser and Bob Moore warn their GOP colleagues not to underestimate the Vermont governor: “We are whistling past the graveyard if we think Howard Dean will be a pushover.”

Kaiser and Moore recognize that Dean projects an authenticity that other high-profile Democrats—including Al Gore and Hillary Clinton —all lack. “The difference between Howard Dean and the rest of the Democrat candidates is that Dean comes across as a true believer to the base, but he will not appear threatening to folks in the middle,” they wrote in September. “More than any other candidate in the field, he will be able to present himself as one who cares about people (doctor), who balances budgets (governor), and who appears well grounded while looking presidential.”

Their back-of-the-envelope electoral calculations suggest Dean would be a contender. They reason he should be able to take the 13 traditionally Democratic states and the District of Columbia where Gore won handily in 2000—including New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California. That would give Dean a base of 183 electoral votes. Kaiser and Moore predict Bush will easily recapture 24 states in the South and West, representing 206 electoral votes.

That leaves 13 states—and 149 electoral votes—up for grabs. Kaiser and Moore consider nine of those states—including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—to be “Democratic-leaning.” The other four—Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio—favor Bush. Based on these figures, Kaiser and Moore show that Dean could rack up 270 electoral votes even without winning Florida. To do so, he would have to win every state Gore did in 2000 plus two others: Nevada and West Virginia.

At the very least, this scenario raises serious doubts about the dire predictions of a McGovern- or Mondale-scale landslide if Dean secures the Democratic nod. Rove is concerned enough about West Virginia that Bush already has visited the state a record five times during his presidency. He spent Fourth of July 2002 just a few miles down the road from Mr. and Mrs. J. You can bet some of that $200 million war chest Bush is amassing will be spent inundating the state with TV ads.

Dean can’t expect much help from the bumbling Democratic establishment or the spineless Senate leadership. Still, as I reach for one last spoonful of Cool-Whip, I can’t help smiling at the idea of Jessica Lynch’s home state tipping the race.

Pie-in-the-sky dreams? Tastes more like a just dessert.

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Craig Aaron is senior program director of the national media reform group Free Press and a former managing editor of In These Times.
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