Hillary In Bitterland

In this March 18, 2008, file photo Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., greets young supporters at a campaign rally in Millersville, Pa.
AP
This column was written by Byron York

"People from the Mon Valley are fighters! You're fighters because - you know what? You didn't go to Harvard! You weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth! You live right here in this valley!"

As warmup acts for Hillary Clinton go, Pennsylvania State Rep. Peter Daley is just the ticket. Here in this valley - the Mon Valley, short for Monongahela, in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania - Daley is speaking to a crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered to see Clinton in the gym at California University of Pennsylvania. Daley, born and raised in the Mon Valley, is still a bit angry about Barack Obama's "bitter" comments - "absolutely appalling," he tells me after he leaves the stage. But Daley doesn't deny that there are people in the economically-challenged Mon Valley who are bitter. He just doesn't think Obama gets what it's all about.

"People in this region aren't bitter in the sense that he understands," Daley explains. "Their bitterness is the fact that they're just tired of losing their jobs, losing opportunities, losing their young people, just because we haven't had that federal help, that little push to keep those steel mills here, keep those coal mines here, and create manufacturing opportunities." That, of course, is pretty consistent with what Obama said, but it was the second part of Obama's statement - the part about clinging to religion, or guns, or bigotry - that rankled. "Unconscionable," Daley tells me.

This is Clinton country. A new poll from Suffolk University, out today, shows Clinton leading Barack Obama statewide, 52 percent to 42 percent. But in the southwestern part of the state, here in the Mon Valley, Clinton has a huge lead, 74 percent to 17 percent.

And people here aren't just for Clinton. They're against Obama. At this Hillary rally, no one expresses any outright hostility to Obama, but they tell me over and over again that they just don't like him, that they don't care for him, that they don't trust him. They view him as inexperienced and not ready to be president, and they think he's selling them a bill of goods.

"I could tell you I'm going build you a house, and I'm going to do everything you want," a man named Bernie tells me. "I'm going to put everything in it just the way you want it. And then you give me your money, and you find out I'm not a carpenter."

The new Suffolk poll found that found that 46 percent of Democrats surveyed in southwest Pennsylvania would either vote for John McCain or would be undecided if their candidate doesn't win. They're the people here tonight. When I ask whether they will vote for Obama if he wins the Democratic nomination, the answers are quick:

"If Hillary doesn't win, I'm not voting."

"No."

"I will not."

"I'd have to debate myself on that one."

Others said they would reluctantly cast votes for Obama. But at least half of the people to whom I speak say they simply would not vote for him in the general election.

For all that, however, the rally isn't about Obama. Press reports have suggested that all the candidates do is trade attacks. But tonight Obama is barely mentioned at all, either by Clinton or her introducers - including Miss Pennsylvania USA Lauren Merola, who relates her experience as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader to the opportunities for women in the workforce that Sen. Clinton will foster. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell doesn't bring up Obama. Rep. John Murtha doesn't bring up Obama. And Clinton herself makes the briefest of mentions, saying that Obama is "attacking me" in a new ad. "He always says in his speeches that he is running a positive campaign, but then his campaign does the opposite," Clinton says.

But that's it. The rest of Clinton's pitch is bread and butter. We've got to have universal health care. We've got to make college loans more affordable. We've got to end No Child Left Behind. We've got to get the two oilmen out of the White House. We've got to get out of Iraq. It is a solid, polished, professional speech - without the slightest touch of magic. Indeed, when you ask people what they like most about Clinton, they give workmanlike answers, too. She has the experience, they say. She knows how Washington works. They remember the days of Bill Clinton's presidency fondly and would like to see them come back. But no one says Clinton inspires them - that's not what they're looking for in the Mon Valley.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania - The next day, Sunday afternoon, Clinton is on the other side of the state in Bethlehem. The name conjures up images of shuttered steel mills and rust-belt decay, but Bethlehem is a beautiful little city - just a couple of years ago, it was included in Money magazine's list of the 100 best places to live in America. (It was number 88.) The city has a lovely, historic main street that is quite alive - check out the Moravian Book Shop and a zillion coffee shops - without empty store fronts.

Clinton's rally is in the gymnasium at Liberty High School. Her team is not exactly expecting a full house. On the left side of the gym, as one faces the stage, there are 25 rows of seats, from floor to ceiling. The Clinton team has put up a big blue curtain and an American flag blocking access beyond the first seven rows; all the seats above that remain empty.

But people pack into the room, after waiting hours to get through Secret Service security points. The gym floor is jammed.

"As I look out on the crowd, I'm not sensing any bitterness," Bethlehem mayor John Callahan tells the audience. "I'm not sensing any pessimism."

He's right. And while Clinton crowds don't exactly go wild, this crowd is as loud and enthusiastic as they get. "Isn't this exciting?" Clinton says when she takes the stage to huge applause. "We're getting to the decision day."

Clinton is better than she was the night before in the Mon Valley. But there's no denying that she is offering a prosaic menu of policy proposals. She doesn't call these gatherings "Solutions for Pennsylvania" for nothing. "While my opponent says one thing and his campaign does another, you can count on me to tell you where I stand, and you can count on me to tell you very specifically the solutions that I'm offering for America," Clinton tells the crowd. "I want you to know very specifically what I will do." And then she tells them very specifically what she will do. As she speaks, the contrast between Clinton and Obama, between her plodding specificity and his soaring inspiration, could not be greater.

As far as voting for Obama is concerned, the views of people here are just about the same as those in the Mon Valley. More than half of those I ask say they won't vote for him under any circumstances. A few others say they'll have to think hard about it. And a few say they'll be (grudgingly) loyal Democrats.

A couple of hours later, people in Bethlehem get a surprise when Obama shows up, unannounced, on Main Street. Word has gotten out a few minutes early, and excited people on the street are calling their friends and telling them to hurry down, that Obama will be there soon. And sure enough, his bus pulls up, and Obama makes his way down the street, shaking hands and stopping briefly at Mama Nina's Foccacheria, before heading to the Bethlehem Brew Works, a brew pub with a Steel City theme - the booths are made of bare piping and sheet steel - on the corner. He sips a beer - a regular guy - talks to a few people, and takes off.

Tonight Obama is heading to the Mon Valley. He'll appear in McKeesport, a town not far from where Rep. Daley introduced Hillary Clinton. Obama's rally is sure to attract those 17 percent of voters in southwestern Pennsylvania who support him, but is there anything he can do to appeal to the rest? Not likely.
By Byron York
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online