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David Sirota
David Sirota
25 Sep 2015
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Signs of an Earthquake In Oregon


America's government-by-television means instantly memorable image is everything. Our electoral decisions pivot less on issues and positions than on caricature — Dukakis peering out of a tank, Quayle misspelling potato, Kerry "looking French," as Republicans claimed. Rare is the iconography that represents deeper substance.

Until now.

As election day approaches, once-safe Republican senators like Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) are struggling against Democrats who are using their economic conservatism to paint them as elitists. The criticism is working both because of the imminent recession and because these incumbents look the part. To paraphrase an attack on failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, these pols don't remind voters of co-workers, but of bosses "who laid them off."

No Republican, though, says aristocrat like Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon. And no senate election could more intensely shift economic politics than his state's.

If Kerry looked like a professor at La Sorbonne, then Smith resembles a playboy at the Monte Carlo Casino. The son of an Eisenhower administration official and heir to a food processing company, Smith grew up in the ritzy D.C. suburbs and today lives on Bethesda's aptly named Country Club Road. In a profile entitled "From Profits to Politics," the state's largest newspaper described him as a guy who "unabashedly enjoys spending" his millions on Ferraris, mansions and "weekend trips to New York to window shop."

Since buying Oregon's senate seat in 1996, Smith has maintained high approval ratings by voting right wing on social and economic issues and feigning liberal on a handful of themes like hate crimes.

This is a well-trod Republican path in swing states — a lockstep conservative record builds strength in GOP strongholds, and occasionally tolerant-sounding but legislatively meaningless rhetoric peels off votes in Democratic bastions.

This year, though, Smith is running for re-election against Democrat Jeff Merkley — the son of a sawmill worker who, as Oregon House speaker, made his name cracking down on predatory lenders.

More Paul Bunyan than Paul Allen, Merkley is running on his record as an economic populist, airing ads hammering a tuxedo-clad Smith for supporting corporate tax cuts and the recent Wall Street bailout. He aims to flip Smith's own calculations on their head, betting he can maintain Democratic margins in cities and middle-class suburbs and cut into Republican support in rural and working-class areas. It's a smart gamble.

Political analysts have long berated populism — i.e., pushing financial regulation, progressive taxation and trade reforms — as blue-collar pandering only effective in the industrial Northeast and Midwest. In the Northwest, the conventional wisdom says that while populism may appeal to Oregon's 70,000 manufacturing and timber workers who lost jobs to foreign competition, it alienates the latte-swilling office parkers who comprise the state's white-collar "new economy."

"When I see his ads in front of a mill that was closed," said Smith in attacking Merkley's criticism of free trade, "I wonder what people at Nike think, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Columbia Sportswear, whose jobs are directly dependent on trade."

Smith hopes Merkley's pocket-book pitches to historically conservative areas like timber-producing Douglas County will alienate high-tech workers in suburbs like Washington County (often called "Silicon Forest"). But with Merkley surging in polls, the opposite may be happening.

The Great American Class War ravaging the industrial sector is now pillaging the information sector, too. As Intel boasts of outsourcing, HP lays off thousands and Wall Street eviscerates 401(k) plans, a new blue-collar/white-collar solidarity is emerging. That means today, as during the Great Depression, progressive economic arguments increasingly work across cultural, geographic and employment divides, tectonically realigning politics and — potentially — policy.

Should Merkley defeat Oregon's tycoon senator in the heart of the "new economy," the tremors of that realignment will become a political earthquake.

David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," was just released in June of 2008. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.


2 Comments | Post Comment
Jeff Merkley spoke about trade and the economy this week at a forum on "The Future of Trade" organized by the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. The forum featured testimonials from both blue- and white-collar workers whose jobs have been lost as a result of failed trade policies.

Check out the video of Merkley's comments at:
Comment: #1
Posted by: orftc
Fri Oct 17, 2008 2:12 PM
Portraying Smith as an aristocrat would be laughable, if I didn't worry that some might think you really believe Merkley's campaign rhetoric. Smith has upper middle class roots; he is not the aristocrat you try to portray. If you have disagreements with him,let it be over his voting record, policies or character, not what social economic group he was born into. I admire a politician who sincerely votes how he can best represent the wishes of his constituency, regardless of party affiliation. I believe Sen. Smith does this routinely. Why didn't you mention his countless hours of community service to his church? or the fact that he gives 10 percent of his income to his church? How about sleeping in a tent with his son on a camping trip? or working long hard hours as a teenager in the family business (which, btw, he bought, not inherited)? One of my co workers just returned from a shopping trip to NYC; does that make her an aristocrat? Please! The man carries himself with dignity and sincerity. Have you read his book about his reaction to his son's suicide? It appears that in order to fit your political populist lens, and /or your desire to see a Democrat win, you create a story of Sen. Smith the aristocrat, at the expense of truth. Shame on you!
Comment: #2
Posted by: sjsh
Wed Oct 22, 2008 6:46 PM
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