A Red Man in a Blue Family

I just returned back from a trip to St. Louis where I visited a few members of my family. Over the past few decades my family has been moving southward away from the city, but while their location has shifted, their politics for the most part haven’t. They remain Democrats, so it was interesting to hear how they viewed the current election.

My sister’s husband is a former Lutheran minister and a pacifist, so it should be no surprise that he is a devout Obama supporter. While he was around I tended to keep my politics to myself because honestly, I think it’s rude to argue politics with one’s host.

My sister was not as dogmatic. She had been a strong Hillary supporter who now supports Obama. ButI got the impression that this was not based on any of his positions, or even the fact that he had won the primaries: I think she supported him because she loved her husband and knew that her husband really liked Obama.

My 87 year old mother has been living with them. Although her body is gradually failing her mind remains as sharp as ever. Like my sister she too supported Hillary, but her support for Obama was much more tepid than my sister’s. She had worked on both the Kennedy campaigns in the 1960s – an impressive feat considering the size of the family she had to take care of – and supported Obama more so out of party loyalty than anything.

During my stay with them my oldest sister stopped by. Her husband had suffered a stroke four years ago that has left him mostly paralyzed and with extreme difficulty communicating. On top of that she was supporting one of her daughters and her two grandchildren while she divorces her alcoholic husband. Her life has become brutal, but you wouldn’t know it because she handles it with grace and without complaint.

While my other sister’s husband was out of the room, she was extremely discouraged by Obama’s candidacy. I asked her what bothered her about it. “He doesn’t stand for anything,” she said. “He changes his positions whenever it’s convenient.” She also mentioned his lack of experience and “that when he speaks he sounds like he’s talking down to you – like he’s not one of the people.” I asked her about McCain. “He scares me,” she said. “And he’s old, although I’m just about as old as he is,” she added in an afterthought. Big Sister is 67; McCain is 72, but she readily admits to supporting him in 2000.

On the issues health care is highest on all their lists. My mother and oldest sister have all butted heads with HMO and insurance bureaucracy over the past couple of years; they also have significant ongoing medical expenses. My younger sister is more concerned about the economy and the difficulty her boys – ranging in age from 20 to 26 – have had finding decent jobs. But to be fair only one of the three has recently decided on a career path, so I’m not sure how much of her concern is due to perception of the economy and how much is based on reality. Her husband is very concerned about the deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and opposes both, but he’s also worried about the state of health care in our country and it turns out that there’s very little daylight between our positions on it and a few other social issues like gay marriage.

The price of gasoline matters a lot to all of them – especially the husband who commutes over 60 miles each day. All four voiced their support of increased domestic oil exploration, and the husband and I had a lengthy discussion about solar power which we both support. No one mentioned Global Warming during my five-day stay. Sorry, Al Gore…

My oldest sister is worried about what would happen if Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. “I don’t know why people complain about ‘divided government’,” she said. “It keeps both parties in check.”

I had gone to St. Louis knowing that the household was pro-Hillary but expected to find it just as pro-Obama now that Hillary had lost her party’s candidacy. My impression is that if the election were held today, three of the four would vote for Obama (my oldest sister being the wildcard; she mentioned the possibility of writing in Hillary). I was surprised at how lukewarm his support turned out to be, but in retrospect I suppose it shouldn’t.

My family is solidly middle class. Oldest sister’s husband was a Vietnam war veteran and a lifelong union electrician. Their son has followed in his father’s footsteps (sans the military service) and become a union electrician. Their daughter has her teaching certificate but due to her circumstances has to work at Target while her soon-to-be ex-husband sits at home unemployed and drinks away his family and his career as a research chemist.

The other sister is an elementary school teacher and her husband is an accountant. Their children all have (or will have) college degrees – but they question their value since most of their children haven’t used them yet. Both are religious but disagree with the literal interpretation of the Bible that one of their children espouses – having left his Catholic faith and become Baptist (by the way, this kid supports McCain and has started on his career doing video and flash for the web – the visit was full of surprises).

My mother is a child of the Depression and probably only voted for a Republican once in her life (Gene McNary – who was her county supervisor and later became head of INS under Clinton). She is a smart woman whom I credit for instilling a love of politics and world affairs. Her favorite politician of recent history was her representative Richard Gephardt, and given what I know about her I’d say that she is a “blue dog Democrat” just like he was.

Both sisters, the husband and our mother will vote in November. Missouri has become somewhat of a swing state. So what conclusions can I reasonably draw from this small, extremely biased, sample?

First Barack Obama’s appeal hasn’t excited the populist Democratic base anywhere near as much as it has the “limousine liberal” wing of the party. The populist wing was where Bill Clinton drew his support and consequently where Hillary drew hers. This presents a threat to Obama’s candidacy that isn’t appreciated by the Media or Obama’s advisors, but could explain why Obama isn’t further ahead in the polls than he is at this point in the race.

Second, Obama’s primary positions were aired much more during the struggle with Hillary than they would have been had the primary season gone easier for him. Publicizing these views during the primaries has limited his ability to move towards the center for the general election since any movement in that direction is perceived by the public as flip-flopping. This in turn has created the perception that Obama cannot be trusted and that he will throw Hillary’s supporters “under the bus” when the opportunity presents itself. It is clear to me that this is the source of my older sister’s distrust of him, and possibly my mother’s as well.

Third McCain has to present himself as a bipartisan candidate and emphasize his “maverick” credentials. What is perceived by the GOP establishment as McCain’s problem – his eagerness to buck the party line – would resonate well in my family in St. Louis. While Obama’s positions are well-known, they know much less about McCain’s and it is up to him to play down his Republican affiliation and promote himself as an independent. I’m not sure how much leeway his party can give him to do that, but to win in my family he has to show them who he really is.

So I conclude to win anyone’s vote in my family John McCain must run as John McCain. He has spent his entire career in public service taking positions that are unpopular within his own party, but my family doesn’t know that. What they know is that he’s a Republican, and to my 87 year old mother that’s a pejorative term.

Looking at the four members of my family, my sister’s husband will vote for Obama no matter what. Although I’ve portrayed her as a bit subservient to her husband, she’s far from it; politics just isn’t that important to her as it is to him so barring a major scandal I don’t see her switching from Obama. My oldest sister could be relatively easily convinced to vote for McCain if he promised a better solution to health care than the standard GOP party line. If he put out something good, something daring she’d swing over to him.

And my 87 year old mother? She’ll be a tougher nut to crack, but a decent health care program and reminders of McCain’s bipartisan record and he could move her to his column. Like I said, my mother is a smart lady who can smell BS a mile away. If McCain runs as McCain, she’ll vote for him.

These are good, hard working Americans that make up the heartland of our country. While I might disagree with their politics, I respect their opinions and am reminded that the “opposition” aren’t faceless robots but people within my own family – people whom I love and who amazingly enough love me back.

Will Barack Obama take their support for granted? Will John McCain win them over? I guess we’ll know in 3 months.

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  1. Matt:

    Did you see the Bunk study stating 2/3 of doctors in America want National Health Care. The doctors who did this study also conducted one in 2002 and found that the majority of doctors did not want national health care, the problem with this is that the 2 question surveys drastically differ in there 2nd question. I found this article, 60% of Physicians Surveyed Oppose Switching to a National Health Care Plan, It’s worth a read.

  2. Garland:

    Socialized medicine would be disastrous—look at Canada and Great(?) Britain—the horror stories
    coming from those places. Look at Oregon, where they won’t pay $4000/month for treatments,
    but will pay for the assisted suicide!

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  4. Scott Kirwin:

    Garland & Matt
    I’m for small government – within limits – but I see health care in a similar way that I view police or fire protection. Both of these were privatised in the past but over time became public goods.

    I have also lived in a country with socialized medicine (Japan) and understand the benefits and drawbacks of a government administered system.

    I have also worked for one of the nation’s largest health care insurers; anyone who thinks that private insurers are more efficient than state or federal governments hasn’t seen what I’ve seen.

    The current health care system in our country is riddled with inefficiency. It is an administrative nightmare; you could combine operations, fire 3/4 of people working in administration and the cost savings would be immense.

    I understand your concerns with big gov’t; I even share them. But our health care system is broken and needs fixing. I’d rather a Republican do it than a Democrat though.

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