Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wrong About Small Towns

A few months back, a "Letter to Barack Obama" was published in the Hays Daily News in Hays, Kansas. The premise of the author, Will Manly, was that Barack Obama was wrong about the honest, hard-working folks in small town America. More glaring than the absurdity of Manly's "supporting evidence" was his utter disregard for doing what he said small-town Americans do best - independent thinking. Instead, he falls back on the outworn slogans and character attacks that have become all too common in "journalism" today. Below is his letter followed by an appropriate response:
Dear Barack Obama: You’re Wrong About Small Towns

I grew to like you over the last year. I've always thought of you as dangerously naive at best. Eloquent, gifted, genuine, yes. But dangerously naive at best.I couldn't vote for you -- but not because of your funny name or your lunatic pastor. I couldn't vote for you because you say we should raise taxes (even on the rich, who I'm convinced already pay too much), and because you say we should abandon Iraq (which I'm convinced would be surrendering a war we must win), and because you don't respect the Second Amendment (which I'm convinced should disqualify any politician from any office).

Still, I've liked your message of unity and your ability to inspire. And, since your rise I've hunted, quite frantically, for young conservative leaders with your talent. (To my relief, I found Bobby Jindal.) And I've long said if you beat Hillary Clinton, you will have done your country a tremendous service. But anymore I'm having a harder and harder time rooting for you.

First came your wife's comment about being proud of America for the first time -- conveniently, right after you started winning primaries. Then came your own words about your grandmother, who is just a "typical white person" -- a racist, or at least someone with racist tendencies. (I'm a "typical white person," I suppose, and I'm no racist. In fact, little makes me angrier than when it's insinuated I am.)

Sometimes people say things they don't really mean. But this is a pattern. Last week, we heard your comments about small-town America. Someone at a San Francisco fundraiser asked you why it's so hard for Democrats to win in rural areas. You said:

"You go into some of 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 ... So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them ..."

Is that a minority? HEY CLETUS, GET THE GUN! (If only we had a job to go to, some time in the last 25 years ...) Here's a thought: Maybe gun rights voters know gun control laws kill people and steal freedom. Here's a thought: Maybe some of us have moral objections to an immigration system that forces rule-followers to wait decades for legal status, and rewards border-violators with amnesty. Here's a thought: Maybe some Americans cling to their church because their pastor is a nice person, because they find love there, because there they have something they can believe in. Here's a thought: Maybe, just maybe, us simpletons in small towns find it harder to be bigoted than all o' y'all cityfolk. Maybe, in small towns, where everybody knows your name -- and how hard you work, if you pay your taxes, how well you treat your neighbors, how often you volunteer in the community, and whether or not you're a good parent -- people see the content of your character, so they don't give a hoot about the color of your skin. (But I grew up in a small town where about a third of the population is of a different race than me. What do I know?) And here's my favorite thought of all: Maybe small-town folks are -- really -- capable of thinking. All on our own.

You're wrong about why small-town Americans don't vote for Democrats. We don't vote for Democrats because we're self-reliant so we don't like the government trying to "solve" everything for us. And because you tell your rich friends in San Francisco that we're dumb. And because, each election, whichever one of you is running for president traipses all over the country telling us you have all the answers, that you're the one on our side, that you understand and respect our way of life.

But each time, a little bit here and there slips out -- and by the end of the campaign, we can tell what you think about us. And we manage to learn who you really are. And we see you're just a horse's ass.
The response:
Dear Will Manly: You’re Wrong About Small Towns

As a product of a small Midwestern town, your headline - "Dear Barack: You're Wrong About Small Towns" – immediately drew my attention. Curious as to what valuable insight (possibly a thoughtful point or two) you were going to provide, I read on. I should have known better.

Barack Obama is dangerously naïve you say. That's interesting. We've all heard the "experience question" raised repeatedly about Obama but the cries about his naïveté appeared to be fading away as the campaign moved on. The reasons were obvious to most because his achievements belie any sense of naiveté. You don't run a historic campaign that inspires millions to register and vote for the first time by being naïve about public policy or, as important, about what lies in the hearts and minds of the American people. And you don't beat a candidate like Hillary Clinton – arguably the most formidable presidential candidate not to gain her party's nomination – by being naïve about the political and electoral process. Quite the opposite actually. As Obama has often said, you shouldn't confuse hope with naïveté. If he was as naïve as you say, he'd be sitting on the sidelines jockeying for airtime with folks who have fallen by the political wayside long ago. (By the way, if Rumsfeld and Cheney represent the merits of “experience” against “naïveté,” than perhaps Republicans should find another argument).

But since I thought that maybe you had clairvoyance, some amazing life experience or perspective on public service and government that could show us all the light, I read on.

You then said that “rich” people pay too much in taxes. Given the current excesses of corporate welfare and considering the impact of the Bush tax cuts (which Senator McCain opposed when he was a "maverick" because he said they gave too much to wealthy Americans at the expense of the middle class), that seemed an odd statement. After all, those making over a million dollars a year have seen their tax rates drop further than any other income group under the Bush Administration. Folks in the middle class, many of whom live in small towns in rural Kansas, haven’t had it nearly as good under the Bush-McCain economic policies. They are the ones who have repeatedly been told to sacrifice. I doubt many of them, struggling to make ends meet by balancing the rising costs of health care, gas prices and paying for their kids' education, shed too many tears for the “rich” folks you champion. You didn't mention Barack Obama's proposal to provide significant tax relief for those small town, middle class Americans, though I'm sure it was just an oversight. Contrary to your belief, Senator Obama is convinced that the middle class are the folks stuck paying too much in taxes. I think that most Americans would agree with him.

Despite my growing weariness with your line of reasoning, I read on.

Next, you stated that Barack Obama wants to “surrender” before “victory” can be achieved in Iraq. I'm not sure how you define either of those terms, but I'll play along.

It's true that Senator Obama wants to begin a redeployment of U.S. combat forces from Iraq to address more grave threats elsewhere, such as a reconstituted Taliban and resurgent al-Qaeda. Other than you and John McCain, I doubt there are many who feel otherwise. In fact, just this week the President acknowledged that a general timeline for troop withdrawal would be included in a pending bilateral security agreement between U.S. and Iraqi governments. The alternative is a permanent presence in a sovereign nation whose elected leaders have been increasingly insistent upon our departure. Senior military officials have repeatedly warned that the current pace of operations in Iraq and the reduced readiness of U.S. military forces is limiting our ability to respond to threats to our security and crises that may (and likely will) emerge both at home and around the world. Regardless, Senator McCain insisted that we had to stay in Iraq because things were going poorly. Now he insists that we have to stay because progress has been made. Which is it?

On the other hand, Senator Obama, who has always said that we must be as careful in our redeployment of troops from Iraq as we were careless in our deployment of those troops in the first place, wants to rebuild our military and take the fight back to those who brought 9/11 to our doorstep. As troops are drawn down in Iraq in consultation with Commanders on the ground, we will be more capable of confronting the enemy that our intelligence agencies tell us is the greatest real threat to our security - the enemy that grows more lethal by the day in the mountains along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. You may recall that Senator McCain said that the Iraq war was a war of necessity because Saddam posed a real and immediate threat to us all. McCain also mentioned this war would quickly come to a conclusion because the Iraqi people would welcome us with open arms. That was in 2003. As we enter into the sixth year of the war (a war that has lasted longer than World War II), McCain's comments and his judgment appear naïve, maybe even dangerously so. Do you agree?

Next, you point out that Barack Obama has no respect for the Constitution, especially the Second Amendment. Given the reckless disregard of the Constitution by the current bunch in the White House, I thought this was also an interesting point to raise. As a former professor of Constitutional law, I'm sure that Obama's alleged disdain for that sacred document is apparent when he cites his beliefs that communities should be allowed to protect their citizens as they see fit and that urban areas like Chicago may see the issue of sensible and reasonable gun control differently than the folks of Ellis County. Hardly. You never mentioned that Obama has repeatedly said that the Second Amendment is an individual right but I’m sure that was yet another oversight. I read on.

And then your article quickly devolved…any hope that you were going to make reasonable points or come to reasonable judgments was quickly thrown out the window. I’m sure that pulling quotes out of context and attacking a candidate for what you perceive as the underlying meaning of those words is enjoyable for you. And I know how easy it can be to build a straw man and then tear it down. It's much easier than debating the true merits of policy differences, but it’s an interesting approach nonetheless for a columnist who places such a premium on “thinking.”

As a columnist, I would hope that you would take the "bitter” comments in their proper context and, just maybe, try to raise the level of discourse in this campaign by delving in to the meaning of Senator Obama’s words. How have small town Americans fared under the Bush-McCain economic policies? Not well. Are they better off today than they were eight years ago? Absolutely not. Would those Americans of whom Senator Obama spoke be better off economically under Democratic Party policies? Absolutely, they wouldn't be stuck paying for tax cuts for those more affluent while at the same time remaining ineligible for the services provided to those less affluent. Is it true that rural America would be better off under Democratic Party policies? Absolutely, those communities would see dramatic investments in priorities such as rural health and education programs, Community Development Block Grants, Rural Business Opportunity Grants, local law enforcement, and enhanced services, access and outreach for rural veterans.
And yes, while many voters base their decisions on purely economic issues, many others vote according to the issues about which they feel most passionately – including gun rights. Barack Obama understands that and as he has stated repeatedly, he respects that. The differences between us matter far less than the many traits and values that bind us as Americans. That is why Barack Obama speaks of the importance of coming together to make real change for America. It sounds like common sense but it’s something that’s been terribly lacking over the past 8 years under the Bush Administration. Americans are sick of politics as usual and they are ready to move on. They are ready for the change that Barack Obama can bring. He knows that Americans, yes even those from small towns like you and I, are capable of thinking for themselves. As he has said, “people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better.” He has challenged us to look at elections in a different way by raising the level of political discourse and making us feel pride and inspiration in our elected leadership again. He has allowed us to realize that hope and pragmatism are not opposing virtues.

Back to your article…since the finish line was within sight, I read on. You next made the point that small towns do not vote for Democrats because they don’t like big government. I thought that was interesting considering that Bill Clinton and Al Gore (the only two-term Democratic Administration in over 60 years) actually scaled down the federal government to its smallest level since LBJ’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s. You also didn’t mention that President Bush has overseen the greatest expansion of the federal government since, you guessed it, LBJ’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s. But I’m sure your mischaracterization of this issue was simply an oversight – yet again.

When you speak of Senator Obama’s “rich friends”, I assume you’re trying to make the case that Obama is the candidate beholden to the wealthy. When you take a look at the backgrounds of Senator Obama and Senator McCain, the policies they have proposed, and their lists of donors, you’ll see that the record clearly speaks for itself. And it’s not even close. Barack Obama is the candidate who turned down lucrative offers after law school to become a community organizer in Chicago, seeking to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods. Only recently was he able to pay off his student loans. During this campaign, he has championed a moderate rate increase on the wealthiest Americans to provide health care and access to higher education for middle class taxpayers. He has also received small dollar (under $25) donations from well-over a million donors - far more than any other candidate in U.S. history. John McCain is the candidate who has served in Congress for over 26 years and recently married into wealth. He is also the candidate who has championed corporate welfare and recently flip-flopped on President Bush’s tax cuts which disproportionately benefit the wealthy – the very people who serve as the backbone of his fundraising efforts. Unfortunately, reality contradicts you once again.

And then comes the last line of your editorial…did you really just call the Democratic nominee for President of the United States a horse’s ass? That line actually should have gone at the beginning of your rants so that readers would have an earlier indication of your true integrity as a columnist. There are those who seek to educate and inform readers, and there are those that go for the cheap one-liners and engage in politics as usual. The former perform a service for the public. The latter are just pawns for career politicians, spinsters and talking heads.

Perhaps someday you will come to see presidential elections for what they should be. Maybe you will work to ensure that they more reflect the best in us (the politics of hope), not the worst in us (the politics of cynicism). You have a choice whether or not to contribute to that. Unfortunately, given your words, it’s clear that your choice has already been made.

As John F. Kennedy once said “The times are too grave, the challenges too urgent, the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through the darkness to a safe and sane future.” I understand your approach but I do not respect it. After all, the approach you have chosen is much easier than thinking - and what responsibly-minded columnist would want to do that? I guess folks like you will just leave the thinking to us naïve, small-town hope-mongers.

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