I’ve spent much of the past two weeks in the Heartland – Houston, Dallas, and then north into Oklahoma, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Allentown, Pa. – giving talks, and talking with lots of people. It was a free-floating focus group whose scientific value is probably questionable – after all, the audiences picked me and I picked the people I wanted to talk with – but I heard several themes over and over again, enough so that they seemed worth noting.
1. First, everything you’ve heard about the deep dissatisfaction with Congress and the Bush administration is true. Iraq and the economy are on everyone’s minds, and just about everyone I met was determined to “throw the rascals out.” I don’t recall this level of hostility since Richard Nixon occupied the White House – and, surprisingly, I heard a lot of it from people who described themselves as Republicans.
2. Not a single Democrat expressed enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. Most were afraid she’d lose. Many were upset with her drift to the right. Lots said they “just don’t like her.” Almost all wanted Gore to run instead. Among the Democratic left, I also heard a lot of talk about Russ Feingold. John McCain’s name came up over and over, among Democrats and Republicans. Most Democrats said they admire him, a surprising number said they’d vote for him over Hillary. Most were unaware of how conservative McCain is, and how hawkish.
3. The “culture wars” seem to have died down. Almost everyone said the divisive issues of abortion and gay marriage had become less salient in their states and communities. The religious right is still very much alive and I had a number of conversations with people who described themselves as “right-wing Christians,” but their attention has switched to issues like immigration. Immigration is a big deal in the Heartland, but Republicans are all over the place on it, and so are Democrats.
4. I’ve never heard so much discussion about widening inequality. It’s a theme I’ve been talking about for years now, without much response. But for some reason, now – perhaps we’ve reached a sort of tipping point on the subject, where the public is starting to take notice and become concerned – it’s now a big deal. There’s lots of worry about the nation “coming apart,” about “anyone falling into poverty,” and about “rich people running the country.” Again, I heard this from self-described Republicans as well as Democrats.
5. The other salient issue is health care. Everyone’s upset about it. The middle class is suffering sticker shock, as employers continue to shift health care costs on to employees. No one has heard any politician from either party give a clear and simple account of what’s wrong and what should be done. Almost everyone I talked with predicted this would be the major domestic policy issue in 2008.
More to come.