Friday, October 19

The Clinton Surprise

Judith Warner, NYT

The shocks just keep on coming:

Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic field with 51 percent of the vote.

She beats Barack Obama by 24 percentage points among black Democrats.

She is projected now to beat Giuliani – or at the very least to be in a statistical dead heat with him in the general election.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. According to the received wisdom of those in-the-know here in Washington, Hillary was supposed to be divisive, unelectable, “radioactive.”

It was the fault of Bill and Monica, and the fact that you never knew when there was going to be another Bill and Monica. It was the fault of Hillary – for not taking the hard line on Bill and Monica the way a woman of her stature and standing was supposed to do. And it was the fault of voters – those people out there who would never, ever elect another Clinton.

Why? Because … everyone said so.

(“I think the one thing we know about Hillary, the one thing we absolutely know, bottom line, [is] she can`t win, right?” is how MSNBC host Tucker Carlson once put it to New Republic editor-at-large Peter Beinart. “She is unelectable.”)

The “we” world of Tucker Carlson knew what they knew about Hillary Clinton — right up until about this week, I think — because they spend an awful lot of time talking to, socializing with and interviewing one another.

What they don’t do all that much is venture outside of a certain set of zip codes to get a feel for the way most people are actually living. They don’t sign up for adjustable rate mortgages, visit emergency rooms to get their primary health care, leave their children in unlicensed day care or lose their jobs because they have to drive their mothers home from the hospital after hip replacement surgery.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters, it turns out, do.

Alongside the newest set of poll results showing Clinton’s surprising levels of popularity among lower- and middle-class women, white moderate women, even black voters, was another story this week, based on a new set of data from the I.R.S.

It showed that America’s most wealthy earn an even greater share of the nation’s income than they did in 2000, at the peak of the tech boom. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the Wall Street Journal reported, earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005 (the latest date at which this data are available), up from the high of 20.8 percent they’d reached in the bull market of 2000. The bottom 50 percent of people earned 12.8 percent of all income, compared with 13 percent in 2000. And the median tax filer’s income fell 2 percent when adjusted for inflation (to about $31,000) between 2000 and 2005.

More and more people are being priced out of a middle class existence. Because of housing prices, because of health care costs, because of tax policy, because of the cost of child care, The Good Life – a life of relative comfort and financial security – is now, in many parts of the country, an upper-middle-class luxury.

Given all this, you would think that Clinton’s big policy announcement this week on improving life for working families would have been big news.

After all, it contained a number of huge new middle class entitlements: paid family leave and sick leave, most notably. There were a number of tried-and-true triggers for outrage from the right wing and the business community like government standards and quality controls for child care. There could have been debate stoked among the many childless workers who now feel parents are getting too much “special treatment” in the workplace (Clinton supports legislation to protect parents and pregnant women from job discrimination). At the very least, someone could have accused Clinton of trying to bring back welfare. (She supports subsidies for low-income parents who wish to stay home to raise their children.) Or someone could have questioned how realistic it really is to pay for all that – to the tune of $1.75 billion per year – simply by cracking down on the “abusive” use of tax shelters, as Clinton proposes to do.

But there was none of this. Clinton’s family policy speech in New Hampshire all but sank like a stone. If it was covered at all, it was often packaged as part of a feature on her attempts to curry favor with female voters. (“Clinton shows femininity,” read a Boston Globe headline.) It was as though the opinion-makers and agenda-setters, waiting with bated breath for Bill to slip up, just one more time, couldn’t see or hear the message to middle-class voters.

(“I do see you and I do hear you,” Clinton said in a speech on “rebuilding the middle class” earlier this month. “You’re not invisible to me.”)

In contemplating the disconnect, as I often have done, between Hillary and her upper-middle-class peers, I find myself thinking of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In Maslow’s theory of human motivation, needs were mapped out in a pyramid form. The broad array of physiological needs was at the bottom, followed by the almost equally wide range of safety needs: things like bodily and financial security, secure physical health and work, and property ownership. Transcendent needs, like truth, justice, wisdom and self-actualization, were in the tiniest triangle up at the top. As their “lower-level” needs were met, Maslow theorized, people moved up the pyramid; they did not – unless the material circumstances of their lives changed dramatically – move back.

The American middle class, it seems to me, is looking to politicians now to satisfy a pretty basic – and urgent – level of need. Yet people in the upper middle class — with their excellent health benefits, schools, salaries, retirement plans, nannies and private afterschool programs — have journeyed so far from that level of need that, it often seems to me, they literally cannot hear what resonates with the middle class. That creates a problematic blind spot for those who write, edit or produce what comes to be known about our politicians and their policies.

Having used that Maslow pyramid analogy, I want to make clear that I do not mean to impute to upper middle class people a “higher” (in the sense of “better”) form of political reasoning. I am merely trying to say that the wealth gap has brought an experience gap that is in turn producing a gap in perception — one that, I predict, will yield a wealth of surprises in this election period.

Hopefully, they’ll be good ones.