President Trump proved the road to the Oval Office runs through the industrial Midwest. The Democrats vying to replace him should keep that in mind. Twenty of them will debate over two nights next week at Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre.
Right now, the oversized field is playing rounds of progressive one-upsmanship. They’re aiming at early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire that help pick nominees. But it’s industrial heartland voters who elect presidents.
Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, also one-time chair of the Democratic National Committee, says he’s concerned Democrats are “leaving Americans behind” with pledges to provide health care to illegal immigrants and promises of Medicare for all.
Around here, the issue folks care about is a four-letter word: jobs. And the private health insurance that comes with it. Just about any union auto worker would tell you collectively bargained health insurance is their most valuable benefit – and they don’t want to trade it for a government policy.
Working folks can think for themselves. They see that higher fuel-economy standards – demanded by coastal states that don’t build cars and trucks – tend to produce vehicles few people want. They see most truck and SUV plants running three shifts as small cars, hybrids and jobs disappear from assembly lines.
And they know the inability of the democratically-controlled House to pass a replacement for NAFTA, to extend electric-vehicle tax credits, to move self-driving car legislation all mean uncertainty for their employers. And their jobs.
No wonder more than a few loyal Democrats in Michigan and Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania backed Trump. He spoke to their frustration, their dislocation, their lurking fear of trade and more plant closings.
Judging by Democrats in the last debates, ordinary folks face an anxious future more oriented to immigrants and a coastal tech crowd loaded with stock options and pricey real estate. Northeast Ohio or southeast Michigan it isn’t. Here, everyday Americans and their jobs face the relentless pressure of automakers making tough calls amid good economic times.
It’s not supposed to be that way. But it is.
Expect Democrats next week to pander to the industrial heartland with shots against General Motors for moving to close four U.S. plants. They’ll blame Trump for “doing nothing” and for his trade wars. And they’ll move on – most of them forgetting what the president showed in the last election: ignore heartland swing states and their bread-and-butter economic issues at your peril.
The industrial Midwest’s economy is powered by private-sector employers operating in a market economy. The hard lesson of 2016 for Democrats is that the top three issues of jobs, jobs, jobs matter. And they still do – a decade after two of Detroit’s three automakers gutted through humiliating bankruptcies.
The economic growth that can fund education, repair infrastructure or sponsor job training doesn’t happen without private-sector jobs and the kind of environment that encourages investment. They understand that here in the heartland. Next week, we might see if any of the Democrats angling to be president actually do.
Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.