Monday, October 27, 2008

Road Trip

I left Minneapolis on Friday on a road trip to Chicago for the weekend. I looked forward to the trip as I was going to celebrate my Uncle Norman's 81st birthday, spend a day with my "blood-brother" Bruce in town from Los Angeles for the the A.I.P.A.C. (American Israeli Political Action Committee) conference and catch up with my Washington D.C. roommate and his wife, Norman and Lilli, who now live in Chicago.

On the first leg of the drive, I traveled to Faribault in Southern Minnesota to pick up my cousin, Kevin, to allow him to join the birthday celebration. The resulting route found us enjoying rolling farmlands and mature trees still ablaze with autumn colors. We picked up the Interstate south of Rochester, giving us the opportunity beforehand to get a feel for some of our rural communities and their struggles as evidenced by closed businesses and the plethora of "For Sale" signs hanging on abandoned buildings and in front of houses along the highway. Having said that, there are few places in this country (speaking as a visitor and/or resident of 47 of 50 states) that are as beautiful as the bluffs viewed traveling East on Interstate 90 as you approach the Mississippi River on a sunny Fall day.

Our destination Friday afternoon was Uncle Norman's lake home outside of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Relying on my car's GPS, we left the Interstate just past Madison and traveled on U.S. 12 for the last hour or so. Again, we were fortunate to experience small towns along the way, including Cambridge, an enchanting borough brimming with antique and art shops. I had wanted to visit Cambridge ever since hearing of its charms five years ago from one of its residents, my daughter's college roommate. Now that I know where it is, I will be able to return. Our route also took us through the town of Whitehall, home to one of the University of Wisconsin campuses, and a picture perfect Midwest college town. It was a poignant part of the trip as I realized that I was traveling the same U.S. 12 my parents drove with three young sons several times a month to visit my ailing grandparents in Chicago in the late 1950's.

I could go on, but the point here is not to provide a travelogue as such. It is, surprise, surprise, to relay my impressions of the political discourse going on as we hurdle towards November 4th.

Frankly, I was amazed at the level of support I saw for Barack Obama as Kevin and I drove across Minnesota's traditionally conservative First Congressional District and through rural Wisconsin, a Republican stronghold in 2004. To be sure, the McCain/Palin ticket is not going to be embarrassed in these regions in a week. Judging from the campaign signage, both sides have strong support. But, judging from the volume of campaign signage, the electorate is engaged beyond anything I can recall.

Thinking about the demonstrated support for Senator Obama, including an amazing amount of support appearing on my fellow travelers' bumper stickers, it struck me that the candidate has effected a paradigm shift in rural America. He has struck a chord with traditionally more conservative parts of the country, making it possible for significant portions of that population to proudly proclaim their support for an African American politician from the South Side of Chicago, apparently without fear of rebuke from their neighbors.

I want to take this as an indication that, among other things, Senator Obama's campaign really has transcended the issue of race. In addition, however, the level of support for a new regime must also be explained with an eye on the economy. My heart went out too often to the shuttered businesses we passed. These former islands of commerce dotting the rural highways represented the hopes of entrepreneurs filling out the infrastructure of isolated communities. Whether the result of a cutback in travel or a reflection of reduced spending by local patrons, the loss of jobs experienced when a restaurant or convenience store or used car lot or curio shop closes in the Heartland has a devastating ripple effect. The jobs are not easily replaceable; commerce slows for everyone. To this audience, Senator Obama's message of hope, coupled with the perception that he has a feel for taking necessary steps to restart the economy (without promising miracles), offers an alternative to the status quo, albeit from a non-traditional source.

By the time I hit the Chicago Loop on Saturday afternoon, any complacency resulting from my sense of optimism over rural support for my urban candidate disappeared. Senator Obama is a tough sell with the A.I.P.A.C. crowd. For reasons I addressed in an earlier discussion of the issue in
Prairie Pondering, many of my Jewish brethren do not trust Senator Obama to continue to provide strong support for Israel. Since, if you are among the 1,500 conference attendees committed enough to Israel enough to fly in from all over the country for the A.I.P.A.C. event, there is no more important issue, any doubts about Senator Obama's Middle East policy is a deal breaker.

My early Sunday morning visit to Norm and Lilly in Lincoln Park was a bit more reassuring. Norm is in the broadcast business. He has retained his love for all things political and, as a career necessity, is tuned into wind currents generated out of Washington. He does business in several Midwestern states and seems to have a sense for the trials and tribulations of the campaigns that goes beyond the hype generated by his advertisers as they do combat over his airwaves. He is optimistic about the election results; Lilly was off to Indiana to door knock for the Obama campaign.

Perhaps the most stark observation from Norm was his concern for the safety of Senator Obama. Many of us have worried about the same thing. But Norm put a slightly different twist on things. Senator Obama's home is across the street from Norm and Lilly's synagogue near the University of Chicago. Apparently, the Secret Service found it necessary to close off open access to the street nearly a year ago. The level of protection deemed necessary is unnerving, made more so by today's news account of a skinhead plot to assassinate Senator Obama. I take some, but faint, solace in the fact that we are reading of the "foiled" plot.

Back in Highland Park for birthday brunch on Sunday, the family allowed itself to "discuss" politics and, again, it was different strokes for different folks. Without getting into who said what, there was probably no better than a 60/40 split in favor of Senator Obama among the adults in attendance. I had long since rejected much of what I heard offered as a basis for opposing an Obama presidency: ties into Reverend Wright, friend of William Ayers, beneficiary of Arab money paying for college, "Manchurian Candidate", no executive experience. Nonetheless, I marveled at how effectively right-wing talking heads had managed to indoctrinate otherwise intelligent upper middle class voters. Since the trip to Chicago to celebrate Uncle Norman's birthday has become an annual tradition, I observed to the assembled gathered around the dining room table that, one way or another, some of us would be saying "I told you so" next October.

I left Highland Park at about 2 p.m., stopping at the local Jewel grocery store to pick up a year's supply of spicy giardinara. Armed, too, with a large Chunky candy bar, two packs of M&M's, a Milky Way, a Cadbury Fruit & Nut a cup of coffee and a liter of Coke, I drove back to Minneapolis. My cousin stayed behind so I was flying solo. I stuck to I-94 on the way home, wanting to have company if the weather turned nasty and as night fell. I used the time to catch up on podcasts of Face the Nation, Meet the Press, Washington Week and This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Some of the podcasts were repeating shows I had previously watched on TV, but it was fascinating to revisit earlier speculation discussing events and strategies that had since played out and/or revealed themselves.

I also caught a fascinating piece on NPR about pollsters in this election cycle and how The Bradley Effect may just be an urban legend. On the Media carried it Sunday, October 26th, interviewing Democratic and Republican staffers closely involved in the 1982 race for California governor and responsible for polling before the election. Both sides claim that internal polling showed Mayor Tom Bradley losing ground during the two weeks before the election and that The Bradley Effect was coined by a pollster with egg on his face when asked to explain how he had gotten things so wrong. I hope they are right and that this campaign has, in fact, transcended the issue of race.

I will not make any predictions here. Two months ago I told you Tim Pawlenty would be the Vice Presidential candidate alongside John McCain. While Senator McCain probably should have listened to me, he did not and I am batting 0% prognosticating in this blog. The notion that I could jinx the outcome by injecting my preference, and remain at 0%, is a risk I will not bear. Rather, I will spend November 4th assisting in getting out the vote and work to make my preference a reality. I ask that you do the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

cousin Sam, I have enjoyed reading your blog, and have an Obama sign in my front yard. Given that I was the first named for your grandfather, we undoubtely share more than just the same name. Next time you are in Chicago, visit the north shore of Milwaukee and would love to spend some time with you. Your cousin from Milwaukee Sam Stern.