Why Hillary Went to Coal Country
Maybe she was hustling primary votes, but give Hillary Clinton some credit: she went into deepest West Virginia and squarely faced disaffected locals who have little reason to love her.
In the recent New York primary, Ted Cruz, for fairly obvious reasons, didn’t do much campaigning on the Upper West Side. So why would Hillary Clinton go to southern West Virginia, deep into the growling belly of coal country?
They’re not exactly analogous, but they’re close enough. West Virginia, once one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country, has been getting redder and redder every election since George W. Bush beat Al Gore there in 2000. Bill Clinton won the state twice, but that’s ancient history now. There’s not a state in the union that has changed so thoroughly so rapidly from one column to the other.
So the Mountain State—my home state, in case I haven’t mentioned that enough over the years—was never going to be Hillary Country. But after she said in a March 13 CNN debate that “we’re going to be putting a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” ... well, it would be like Cruz going to the Upper West Side after saying “we’re going to abolish the theatrical arts when I’m president, and by the way we’re gonna close down Zabar’s to boot.”
But there Clinton was Monday night, in Williamson. Now Williamson is way down there. Near Kentucky. I’ve never been to Williamson and to be honest with you I’ve never been especially close, unless you count Charleston or Beckley, the cities that are kinda-sorta near. When you grow up in Morgantown, up north, you look at that part of the state on the map for about three seconds, those corkscrew back roads and that forbidding topography, and think, “Uh-uh.” And it’s far. By about 30 miles or so, Morgantown is closer to Cleveland than it is to Williamson.
So, give her credit for that at least. If she merely wanted to be able to say that she set foot in West Virginia in advance of the upcoming May 10 primary, she could have come to Morgantown, the university city where you can find some actual liberals, or Shepherdstown, the quaint eastern panhandle burg that has liberalized as escapees from the nation’s capital have moved in. She’s going to gets real votes in those two places. But she went right down into the hellmouth. And Bill went to nearby Logan, where “local officials” announced that the Clintons were banned. Bill showed up anyway.
Both met with predictable results.” “Go home!” protesters chanted to Hillary, some holding Trump signs. She appears to have taken it in stride. “I don’t mind anybody being upset or angry,” she told the audience at the health center where she spoke, adding that she was “a bit sad and sorry that I gave people the excuse to be angry at me because that’s not what I said at all.”
Well, it is what she said, and certainly, she meant it. The Democratic Party’s rank and file, and more importantly its donor base concentrated on the coasts and in Chicago, is heavily anti-fossil fuel. Conversely, the coal companies themselves now donate almost exclusively to Republicans. So no Democrat seeking national office is going to support coal from this point on.
But in fairness, it isn’t all she said. She quickly added at that debate: “And we're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”
True to wonkish form, Clinton has a plan for saving coal communities. On paper it looks fine—$30 billion in investments to help places like Williamson and Logan build functioning post-coal economies. Coal is going to die away at some point in the probably not-too-distant future; the industry is in steep decline, partly because of cheaper natural gas and partly because of greater recognition of coal’s environmental costs. So better to acknowledge the reality and prepare for it. But of course, that’s not what gets votes. Shouting “long live coal!” does a better job of that.
So why did she go? She may have gone because in spite of the infamous quote, it seems she might still have a chance to pick the state off in the primary, and of course every delegate counts now as she tries to race to 2,393 to shut Bernie Sanders’s arguments down. Polling in the state has been as wobbly as the Mountaineers’ special-teams coverage in recent years. A poll back in February made everyone’s eyes pop out of their heads when it showed Sanders 57, Clinton 29. Then came another in early March—before the debate comment—that had Clinton up 44-31. Then a new one hit Tuesday, showing Sanders back up 45-37.
The state is a goner come November. Check out Sanders’s and Clinton’s respective favorable/unfavorable ratings in that most recent poll: 15-77, and 12-84! Trump or even Cruz will romp there. But she may still feel that she has a shot at winning the primary.
However, the way to do that, as I noted above, is to hit friendlier terrain, have a big rally. That’s usually done in Charleston, the capital. Maybe work in a quick fund-raiser, pose for pictures with the state’s Democratic honchos.
So maybe she went ... to meet these people and try to reassure them? Said Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who took a bit of a risk himself by accompanying Clinton: “It’s easy, easy for anybody in public office to go and visit with your friends all day long.”
West Virginia, southern West Virginia in particular, is in for a pretty grim future. Coal is their life, their jobs; they can hardly be blamed if they don’t believe it when politicians tell them that former mine lands can be repurposed for manufacturing or clean-energy projects. That may be a lie, and it’s not as if implementing her post-coal action plan is going to be one of President Clinton’s top three priorities. But telling them their way of life can continue indefinitely, as Republicans do, is certainly a lie. At least Clinton went to talk with them.