Working-class folks: What Bill Clinton knew, and Hillary Rodham failed to learn

If you have followed Bill Clinton's career closely through the decades, as I have, then you know that at one point Southern and Midwestern Democrats thought that he was the future of the party, a centrist who could understand the concerns of working-class Democrats and even his party's moral conservatives.

After all, in Arkansas he was even willing to compromise and seek some kind of centrist position on abortion. Few remember that, over in Tennessee, the young Sen. Al Gore at one time had an 80-plus percent positive rating from National Right to Life.

But there always was a nagging problem, even before Bill Clinton's libido jumped into the national headlines. Her name was Hillary Rodham Clinton and it was pretty clear that she was 1960s Wellesley College right down to the core (even with her complex Chicago roots).

So when it came to issues of class, culture and (early on) even morality, there was Bill Clinton and then there was Hillary Rodham Clinton. This leads us to a news feature in the Washington Post that had to catch the eye of long-time Clinton watchers: "The Clintons were undone by the middle-American voters they once knew so well."

The byline was just as important -- David Maraniss. We're talking about the veteran reporter who wrote "First In His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton."

Surely Maraniss would see the cultural, moral and religious ghosts in much of the coverage of Hillary's great defeat? That would be yes, yes and no. Here's the overture:

Few Americans knew the voters who rejected Hillary Clinton better than her husband. He lived among them growing up, and then studied them with a fanatical intensity during his political rise.
But now, with any notion of a dynasty dead and gone, one explanation for the stunning political demise of the Clintons might be the extent to which they moved away from a middle-American sensibility into the realm of the coastal elite, from McDonald’s to veganism to put it in symbolic terms, making it harder for Hillary to bridge the nation’s yawning social divide.


Bill Clinton grew up in rural southwest Arkansas. His mother called him Bubba and thought of him as her Elvis. Their neighbors were mostly white, had little money or clout, and felt alienated from the social and economic changes rumbling through the outside world and headed their way.
These same citizens later dealt the brash young Bill Clinton an unsettling early defeat, tossing him and his wife, Hillary, out of the Arkansas governor’s mansion in 1980 after a single two-year term. They thought he was too much of an elitist, that his wife was not one of them, but an independent feminist who wouldn’t even take his last name, and that his policies ignored their daily struggles. What incited their rage was a state tax on license plates based on the weight instead of price of a vehicle -- making a farmer with a heavy, old pickup truck pay more than a rich city slicker driving a Porsche.

To be blunt, I would have included Bill Clinton's early admiration for the Rev. Billy Graham in there, balanced by his drive to become another President John F. Kennedy. There's the two pieces of the complex Bill Clinton equation, right there.

It's also significant, for folks down South, that Bill Clinton was an Arkansas Baptist and Hillary Rodham was an urban Methodist from the Midwest. In Southern cities (not the rural zones) Methodists (and Episcopalians) are the rich, educated elites. Baptists are the normal folks.

Maraniss is all over the cultural side of this split, since it is literally the heart of his article. But the moral and religious elements of the story? Well, let's just say that there are lots and lots of religion ghosts, to use the GetReligion term again.

This story is must reading, even if readers need to read between the lines for the religious and moral content. It contains one devastating detail that, for me, is literally haunting. I mean, I knew the early career of Bill Clinton, but I had forgotten this.

Talk about ironic.

Read this Maraniss passage and think about the crucial moments on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning when key states in the Rust Belt went red, instead of blue:

In the four terms Bill served as governor after returning to power in 1982, he and his wife constantly tried to figure out how to keep going even as the country turned more conservative in the Reagan era. That became the essence of his successful 1992 presidential campaign, when he relied on pollster Stan Greenberg’s seminal study of Reagan Democrats in Michigan’s Macomb County, the blue-collar suburban region north of Detroit populated largely by white men who felt adrift from the cultural changes in America and struggling from the decline of manufacturing jobs. There and in similar areas, Clinton knew how to take his old Bubba personality and combine it with a relentless focus on “the economy, stupid” to make his winning case.
He used that ability again later in the White House to keep his connection with the white working class, among other ways by opposing same-sex marriage and supporting reform of a welfare system that many wrongly believed was aimed primarily at helping poor minorities.
Two decades later, when Hillary tried to reclaim the Clinton legend, everything had changed. The country and the candidate. She was no Bubba. ...

The bottom line: Maraniss knew that this story was just as much about culture as it was politics.

That was true of the 2016 White House race, as well. If this fine story could be summed up as McDonald's vs. veganism, what could he have said to make the same point about issues of faith and moral culture?

To be blunt: How did Hillary lose the working-class Midwestern Catholic (for the most part) labor Democrats who her husband knew that he needed in order to reach the White House? Why didn't Maraniss and the Post political team do more to see the religion ghosts in that drama?

Just asking.

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