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What Barack Obama and Chicken Contact Lenses Have in Common

With the U.S. losing 160,000 jobs in September, suddenly Barack Obama’s tax cuts, and health care and education reform are starting to sound a little more important than religion and guns to the working-class

Sometimes it’s hard to convey a message about a product to the working class. That product could be chicken contact lens..or it could be. Barack Obama. Working-class whites compose just about half of the electorate, and over the last several decades have typically sided with the Republican party. Given recent shifts in the polls, it seems that Mr. Obama may be trying to write a (B) Case to that story.

In the 1960s, a Harvard elitist “egghead” named Randy Wise had an innovative answer to the poultry industry’s burning question: How the hell do we stop chickens from eating each other in the cage and destroying our profit margins? His answer was simple: “We will put red contact lenses on chickens, producing a calming effect on the chickens and preventing them from misbehaving and overeating. That is change we can believe in.” It turns out that many working-class grassroots farmers were not ready to listen to some Harvard MBA-type tell them how to change a process that had existed since their ancestors first set foot on American soil.

In 2008, a Harvard egghead named Barack Obama had an innovative answer to the country’s burning question: “How do we get ourselves out of the past eight years?” The answer: succinctly put, “Change.” To that effect, Obama proposed things like cutting 95% of taxes for the middle class, increasing healthcare coverage in the U.S. by 99% through caps on health care premiums and establishing price controls on drug companies, and setting a hard deadline on what many would describe as a disastrous war in Iraq. Despite a strong campaign message dedicated to the middle/working class, Obama and McCain were even in the polls, and many were wondering how the Democrats weren’t running away with the election in the wake of eight years of Bush rule.

The answer may lie in the difficulty for Obama to connect with the working-class. For as long as I have been alive, the Republican party has been the party of the steel-toe, lunch pail voter (i.e., Joe Sixpack), who sided with the Republican party for its laissez faire attitude to government and its various stances on cultural issues (guns, abortions, same-sex marriage, religion).

Ironically, what originally sent the working class running towards Republicans was Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which disillusioned many working-class voters who saw the Act as the evolution of the Democratic party into a party of handouts to the very poor and unemployed, African Americans, and other groups. The Act in combination with anti-war protests in the ’60s against a war which sent the sons of many working class men to their deaths sealed a victory for Richard Nixon in 1968. Over time, issues of gun control, religion, and capital punishment all came into the mix, but working-class voters tended to vote Republican more on cultural issues than anything else.

The trends have stayed true almost up to the present day. Working-class voters largely supported George W. Bush during both of his victories, and a group known as the “Reagan Democrats” – socially conservative, small town, white, working-class democrats who voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, continued to play a significant role in elections. 2008 also brought a new dimension – Barack Obama’s race, which many indicate may be playing a role in the election dynamic. A recent Stanford University poll attributes as much as a 6% loss for Obama in polls due to his race alone. With history on his side, Mr. McCain made his first stop on his campaign tour with his bubbly new running mate Macomb County, Michigan, considered the home of the Reagan Democrats – telegraphing his plan to hold on to the white working-class.

“What John McCain doesn’t understand” is that with that whole pesky “economy not working” thing, and with the Republican party now brandished with a Scarlet W., the working-class may have a new agenda in this election year. Three weeks ago, before the impact of the crisis truly materialized, Obama and McCain were in a dead heat in the polls, with McCain up by 18 points among working-class whites, according to a Wall Street Journal poll. As the financial crisis unfolded, McCain’s lead with working-class whites dropped by 11 points, and Obama surged ahead in the popular vote according to almost every poll.

The economic crisis has hit Michigan (and other parts of the country), and the working-class ain’t happy about it. The Macomb County foreclosure rate puts it in the top 3% of all U.S. counties with distressed homeowners. Michigan lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs in 2008, and its 9% unemployment rate is the highest in the nation. And Michigan is only one state. With the U.S. losing 160,000 jobs in September, suddenly Barack Obama’s tax cuts, and health care and education reform are starting to sound a little more important than religion and guns to the working-class.

Having initiated a very awkward discussion about the difference between a “strategy” and a “tactic” in the first presidential debate, Mr. McCain must now be thinking a lot about the actual difference between those two words. At this point, it is becoming more clear (at least to me) that the McCain camp has had no strategy for this entire election, and that Barack Obama’s plan for the middle class coupled with his “Presidentiality” displayed during the first two debates has really shifted the election to the Democrats.

That is where tactics come in. The “Mr. McCain goes to Washington” stunt was a great distraction from a drop in the polls. Choosing a folksy, charming, blood-drinking, incoherent, bridge-building, pro/anti ear-mark, science-hating, first-term governor who reads a “vast variety” of stuff, and carpools with her neighbor Vladimir Putin as the VP candidate was a better tactic. Repeating the phrase “Mr. Obama does not understand” until it has to be true might fool a couple of people. I am not sure about referring to him as “that one,” but Mr. McCain might try “jerk face” next time. Referencing Ronald Reagan, doing away with earmark spending, and small government are all great ideas to reach out to fiscal conservatives, but not when combined with McCain’s poorly communicated plan for another $300 billion bailout to nationalize bad mortgages.

But in the end, I worry that this election will quickly enter lowest common denominator territory. We will watch (well, we won’t watch any of it because all these commercials will air in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio) as Mr. McCain employs the very same gorilla mud-fighting tactics that lost him the 2000 primary to George W. Bush. We will watch as Sarah Palin continues to suggest that Mr. Obama is some sort of terrorist, and that his relationship with his pastor calls into question his own patriotism (leaving her own witch-hunting pastor for another discussion). We have already heard people at McCain-Palin rallies yell out “kill him,” “terrorist,” and even worse in reference to Mr. Obama – and there are several weeks left until we go to the polls.

I would like to believe that we are about to write the (B) Case to the Chicken Contact Lens story. I would like to believe that the working class voter is ready to leave behind the old way of thinking. I would like to believe that we have finally entered a moment where the politics of issues outweigh the politics of culture.

In the upcoming weeks, John McCain and the Republicans will be hoping that the working-class is either not ready for change, or that they will be terrified of its messenger. For Mr. McCain’s sake, they better be.

Or else the chickens are coming home to roost, and the Democrats will be in the White House again.

October 14, 2008
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