Does Barack Obama have a Western Strategy for winning the 2008 Presidential election? Yes he sees the West as winnable and he is campaigning there in earnest. But I'm talking about something larger.
1. Is Western Populism Real?
A friend referred me to David Sirota and I was further drawn when I visited his blog and learned he had written a few pieces on the Ludlow Massacre, the horrendous rampage that resulted in the killing of children, state troopers and others during the days almost a century ago when unions were forging their way into prominence. I grew up singing a song about the Ludlow Massacre so it was good to see it had not been forgotten.
Then I found Sirota's evaluative piece on Barack Obama with the following conclusion:
"Obama will often be a reliable liberal vote, and he can give one hell of a speech. But we should believe him when he downplays our expectations. He says he's "a work in progress," but he's in an institution that tends to stifle greatness. As comic Jon Stewart said, "Everybody thought Barack Obama was going to [inspire people] when he came to Washington, but, you know, the Senate seems like the place where smart people go to die."
Then I noticed Sirota's writings are syndicated mainly in papers that serve communities in the West. And in a conversation with a political activist from that region, I put two and two together and combined the keyword populist with and the key phrase Western Strategy and the idea for this page was born.
Defining Western Populism
To me this is a populism that loses its nativist, protectionist edge and is grafted to a sort of processed pioneer mentality. Its elements include a sort of secular spirituality, a reverence for a lost Native American past, along with a resolute willingness to take Genesis literally and damned well dominate the earth, for the good of the order.
It is also a populism based on a general alienation from and distrust of Washington. States like Montana sense that they can do what they need to do with relatively scant help from a government that has plunged the nation into massive debt and failed to enact legislation that will help ordinary people to put more bread on the table.
It is a populism that finds political expression in a rift between Democrats who "get it" and those who don't. Roughly seen now in a split between those who gravitated to Barack and those who were comfortable with Clintonian politics -- hardly populist in any respect.
How much this language illuminates is a good question. My own inclination is to use the term New Democrats to denote people who are happy to escape the grip of Clintonian politics, with their corporate ties, and move toward a tradition which is closer to that of both Roosevelts -- Teddy when it comes to the land and environment, Franklin when it comes to a break for ordinary people.
2. An Obama Western Strategy
The following salient text from the Western Democrat expresses the Western Strategy I have in mind.
"The Case for Brian Schweitzer
Here at Western Democrat, we have previously made the case for Bill Richardson for President or Vice President. But consider another prominent Western Democrat for the currently open position of Democratic nominee for the Vice Presidency, namely Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana.
The vice presidential nominee has four roles: to help the ticket win in November, to serve as a loyal part of the new administration, to assume the presidency should disaster strike, and, under happy circumstances, to lead the party eight years hence. Governor Schweitzer is an attractive candidate for all four tasks.
Governor Schweitzer would be a great candidate. He is the popular Democratic governor of a red to purple state who knows how to appeal to Republicans and Independents. He would reinforce the Obama message of turning the page on the red/blue divide of the last decade. He has a natural, folksy charm that would play well on the national stage. He is from way outside Washington in a year when voters are hungry for change in Washington. He does not play into the GOP stereotype of an out of touch Eastern liberal, yet he effectively champions Democratic issues such as education and healthcare. He does not have a trail of potentially controversial votes on wedge issues in the Senate. He is old enough to be successful and experienced both in the private and public sectors, including international experience, while young enough to be a vigorous campaigner. He understands national issues that are particularly important to the West such as energy and water, the West being rich in energy, but chronically short of water. He could help swing crucial states in the West. Montana has only three electoral votes, but he would automatically put his state in play. Neighboring North Dakota is potentially swingable and has three electoral votes. In the rest of the West, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, with a combined nineteen electoral votes, will be critical battlegrounds, and having a Westerner on the ticket would help. The sum total is the equivalent of swinging one big state, which is about the best that a vice presidential nominee can hope to do. Moreover, Governor Schweitzer would be a reassuring choice for a number of wavering constituencies all across the country that the party needs in November."
Here is my own suggestion of what a Western strategy might look like. I am listing first the states I believe Obama could win with any running mate. I should say at the outset that I believe Obama CAN win with any running mate and that he will do so by a small or larger landslide. I doubt we will see a repeat of recent close elections,or a continuation of gridlock politics.
Western States Obama Wins with Any Running Mate
* California 55
* Kansas 6
* Missouri 11
* Nevada 5
* New Mexico 5
* Oregon 7
* Washington 11
States Obama Could Win with a Brian Schweitzer as Running Mate and with a Western Strategy
North Dakota 3
South Dakota 3
A McCain-Romney ticket would reduce this amount by at least 5 and perhaps by more, but that only argues louder for the contention that, just as a Southern Strategy helped Nixon rewrite the political map, so too a Western strategy will serve Obama well. It's not just a vote bump, it's a way of defining what a New Democrat is.
A western strategy would consist of three key elements.
1. MONEY GOES FARTHER IN THE WEST.
Obama would put the necessary resources in all these states, on the ground, to achieve wins.
2. THE MESSAGE, THE MESSAGE, THE MESSAGE
The campaign would MODIFY the populism associated with John Edwards to the point of emphasizing community organization and grass roots enablement more than federal handouts. It would seize on elements of populism found in the writings of folk like Sirota. It would be a PROGRESSIVE POPULISM with a LIBERTARIAN EDGE -- precisely the sort of message that seems almost instinctive with Schweitzer.
One might argue that Barack's is a transcendent message that needs no links to any cultural or political or regional factors. But just as advance planning and attention to detail were watchwords of the primary campaign, the same factors should be in play in determining where to allocate resources and target messages in the general election.
Whether it is explicit or not, I believe the Obama Campaign would be well served by giving thought to a Western Strategy.
3. SCALE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Both JFK and before him Frederick Jackson Turner were somewhat premature in assuming that all earthly frontiers in the US had been exhausted by our seismic Westward movement. In point of fact, as Schweitzer's Montana demonstrates, there is still a good deal of space, and one might see this fact as a determining influence on the entire nation. And the imagination is rather broader than to be circumscribed as Turner's thesis might have it.
One cannot drive from West to East without becoming aware of the incredible density that begins somewhere on the plains of Illinois, increases into Pennsylvania and reaches a horrendous crescendo on Boylston Street in Boston as cars rush madly to the sea.
If any area of the country can be used to design the environmental changes we need on a SCALE that is large enough to have serious relevance it is the Western states where vast areas still exist in only modestly spoiled condition.
It will be crucial for Obama to forge an immigration stance that can address the populist mentality while being more attractive to Hispanics than what John McCain decides to offer.
If my projections are correct -- and the winning states were chosen because of primary results combined with total vote comparisons between Democratic and Republican in these contests -- the West is one of the few situations in which having a Westerner as a running mate would make sense. Schweitzer's complimentary character and similar vision and New Democrat label all count for something as well.
Obama and Schweitzer might come off as two highly attractive originals whose ability to see things eye-to-eye speaks multitudes to an electorate accustomed to narrow reasoning and penurious results.
Disclosure: I do support Brian Schweitzer as Vice President and have said so on my Schweitzer for President page.
Western Strategy -- Some Relevant Links:
Power Q&A: Rep. Jay Inslee