WASHINGTON — The first rule in elections is: Go for the votes you can get. By that measure, Hillary Clinton is right to try to put the old Obama coalition on steroids.
Donald Trump will expand the Democrats’ opportunities among non-white Americans, and produce Clinton landslides among Latinos. They have good reason to fear and despise the man who has demeaned them.
And watch Republicans for Clinton become a major force in American politics, an alliance of mostly well-off, well-educated voters — plus women of all classes. The members of the party of Lincoln who support Clinton will see that against Trump, she is the safe and even, by the non-ideological definition of the term, conservative choice.
But Clinton also has to challenge Trump for at least a share among angry and struggling white working-class voters with real economic grievances. Their votes matter if she wants to keep Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania in the Democratic column.
Clinton’s visit to Appalachia last week reflected this realism, but it was about more than electoral calculation. Believe it or not, there are moral obligations in electoral politics. This is why her Appalachian outreach represented one of the admirable moments of her campaign. A progressivism that writes off the white working class is not worthy of being called progressive.
Trump, of course, mocked her visit and reveled in the pushback she got from voters who are part of his base. She had to offer an apology for her statement earlier this year that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Politically, it was not, to be charitable, a wise thing to say. But consider the context of that line at a March CNN town hall:
“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? 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.”
The media often don’t put comments of this sort in context because, as you can see above, it takes a big fat, space-consuming paragraph to make it clear that she was speaking with empathy for coal miners, not consigning them to the economy’s dustbin.
And her speech last Tuesday in Athens, Ohio, offered un-glitzy, realistic policies to try to bring back an Appalachian economy that can no longer rely on coal. “At a time when our energy sector is changing rapidly, we need to invest in coal communities,” she said. “We need to figure out how to bring new jobs and industries to them, and we need to stand up to the coal executives trying to shirk their responsibilities to their workers and retirees.”
Now contrast this with Trump’s speech in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday. “I’m going to put the miners back to work,” Trump declared, “and she said I’m going to put the miners and the mines out of business.”
The first part of that statement is a policy lie, but not the sort of lie politicians typically get called on. The truth is that for a whole series of reasons (as thoughtful reporting over the years by the Louisville Courier-Journal has shown), the region’s old coal economy is not coming back to anything like where it was. In suggesting he can reverse these large economic trends, Trump is making a promise he cannot possibly keep. But a nice sound bite grabs more attention than Clinton’s more complicated post-coal revitalization ideas.
In her speech, Clinton acknowledged several times that many of the voters she met with during her Appalachian tour would never vote for her. The trip nonetheless made sense as part of a larger obligation of leadership. Making America governable again requires breaking down barriers that get in the way of empathy across the lines of race and class but also of social status and personal values. And making America a more just nation requires honest talk about policies that can actually lift up those still hurting in our economy.
The hard political truth is that economic justice and empathy are the true alternatives to Trumpian divisiveness.
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.