By Jennifer Rubin
In a preliminary study of the 2020 election returns, the Brookings Institution found that President-elect Joe Biden’s “winning base in 477 counties encompasses fully 70 percent of America’s economic activity, while Trump’s losing base of 2,497 counties represents just 29 percent of the economy.” President Donald Trump did not win over these voters by addressing their actual needs. To the contrary, the gap between rural and urban-suburban America on everything from life span to education to wealth continues to widen. Poverty is most acute in rural American.
Trump won these voters over in large part by telling them that urban elites looked down on them. He made every effort to increase their resentment and rage while doing nothing to help improve these voters’ lives. (You will recall Republicans’ plan to repeal Obamacare generally wound up costing rural Americans more and endangering rural hospitals.) His tariff wars sent farm bankruptcies skyrocketing. Now, red states are among the hardest-hit by the coronavirus.
Biden seems uniquely situated to turn away from culture wars and actually help rural Americans. His Build Back Better plan has a number of elements directed at rural America, among them to rotect and build on the Affordable Care Act to expand access to health care in rural communities; expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American; invest in rural public schools and colleges; and conserve our public lands, bolster community resilience, and address the changing climate.
As Biden designs his stimulus plan, he would be smart to call in a fleet of red-state senators and start cutting deals with them. And in addressing the pandemic, Biden should go beyond lecturing red-state leaders about the value of lockdowns and masks and make clear what he is going to do for them, whether that means helping them with vaccine distribution or rebuilding their economies.
Skeptical Republicans are already giving hints about what they need. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., recently wrote that Biden can prove he is a president for all Americans by addressing the hardship created by the death of the coal industry. On her wish list are “Opportunity Zones” that “provide significant tax benefits to companies interested in starting or relocating to coal communities”; extending “unemployment benefits to workers who lost their employment as a result of mine closures or reductions in coal production”; and providing federal protection “for pension and other retirement obligations that have been lost or put at risk as a result of recent bankruptcies. If we can protect banks after the 2008 mortgage crisis, we can certainly find the will to prop up our mining communities.” None of that strikes me as unreasonable, though her fourth request to ease coal exports to the rest of the world may be a non-starter given Biden’s climate-change plans. Cheney and Wyoming voters did not get those things under Trump. Biden should deliver, not least because Cheney is likely to be an ally when Biden comes looking for measures to get tough with Russia and Turkey.
Republicans are not likely to pull out excuses about fiscal sobriety and big government when their constituents are getting badly needed help. Biden’s philosophy is that recovery is not a zero-sum game; lots of Americans need assistance from their government. Unlike Trump, who threatens to deny New York the coronavirus vaccine because its governor was mean to him, Biden is not going to play politics with peoples’ lives. And if he produces real results, the threats of “socialism” and “radical Democrats” will seem a whole lot less relevant. Republicans realize child care is an acute problem in rural America. Child care is part of Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Surely there is a deal to be made.
Recall that it was Stacey Abrams who began building an organization that included rural Georgia in her 2018 gubernatorial run, understanding that poor whites need Medicaid extension as much as Democrats’ traditional constituencies in the cities. She showed up, got to know these voters and addressed issues they cared about. She wound up getting more votes than any Democrat in Georgia’s history (including Barack Obama) in her narrow loss. And no one is more responsible than she for keeping irregular voters engaged and helping Biden turn Georgia blue in 2020.
If their outreach can work in Georgia, which has not voted Democratic since Bill Clinton, it might just work for Democrats in a whole lot of states.
Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.