This is part of a series of dispatches from Melinda Henneberger, who’s talking to voters around the U.S. about their views on the environment and the election.
Nashua, N.H. — Suziana Moriera does not see soaring gas prices as all bad: “It’s still not hurting enough. People complain, but it’s got to hurt more” before Americans will start driving appreciably less. It’s got to hurt more, she thinks, before her hometown of Nashua will ever come up with public transportation that doesn’t involve “waiting an hour for a bus that still doesn’t take you where you need to go.”
That’s why Moriera, a music teacher and registered independent whose daughter makes her living as an environmental consultant, puts green issues near the very top on the list of concerns she’ll be voting on in November — right below getting the troops out of Iraq and putting the economy back on track after what she sees as the disaster of the Bush years. (“I’ve had enough of the Republicans!”) Yet she may well vote for John McCain for president, “even though he is in the Bush camp, and they have been terrible on the environment.” Why? Essentially, because she suspects Barack Obama of being a little bit too nice a guy, a possible pushover.
Though a lot of us do seem to want a president we’d enjoy grilling out with, the less-discussed fine print on the wish list is that we want him to be the kind of good-bud neighbor who is also capable of acting like a jerk sometimes — the dad next door who’d have no problem yelling at the kids in the party house to turn the music down, and no problem calling the cops.
“He’s very much a gentleman,” Moriera says of Obama — and not at all responsible for what she saw as the sexist treatment of her first-choice candidate, Hillary Clinton. But could he be too gentlemanly? She wonders: “Does he have the backbone to deal with the huge problems he’ll have to face?” So far, he has just not filled her with confidence on that score. “Obama has been flip-flopping so much, I’m not sure about him. On eavesdropping, I was shocked,” she says, referring to his recent Senate vote in support of the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Obama had promised he would help filibuster any FISA bill that gave immunity to telecommunications companies that had cooperated with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. But then, he went ahead and voted for just such a bill. “And if he did that,” Moriera reasons, “he could do other things.” Come November, she may reluctantly conclude that what she sees as McCain’s strength is more important than his specific stands, many of which she disagrees with: “I’ll have to see.”
Like Moriera, whom I met outside the town’s City Hall, the whole state of New Hampshire is a toss-up in the presidential race. Though there is little support for either President Bush or the war in Iraq here, McCain is seen, as the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato puts it, as “New Hampshire’s kind of Republican.” It’s this state, after all, that “rescued McCain’s candidacy from oblivion in January” when he won the New Hampshire primary, just as he’d done in 2000.
But out in back of City Hall, an all-female group of town employees on break seems to be in agreement about the country’s biggest problem at the moment — it’s the economy — and which candidate they favor to fix it. “It’s Obama right now,” says Janet Durand. She’s the town’s DMV coordinator — and thus, she jokes, “the one nobody likes!” She holds it against McCain that one of his top economic advisers, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, said that the recession is all in our minds, and that we’ve become a country of whiners. “That stupid comment about whining” really cinched it, she says. “They’re too rich to know anything” about what average Americans go through.
Her friend Heidi Slosek, who works in the similarly popular tax collector’s office, says she likes McCain well enough as a person: “McCain is not as bad as some people are saying; he was a POW and that says a lot. It takes a lot to survive that and still be strong like he is. He’s for continuing us being in Iraq, and that worries me, but what would happen if we weren’t there? Would that mean more terrorism coming here?” Still, she’s decided to vote for Obama, too, “because he’s in the same ballpark as Hillary, and this time we do need a Democrat for president because we’ve had a rough two terms with a Republican.”
Though I’ve been to Nashua many times before, this is my first solo trip — the first time I haven’t been tagging along after a presidential candidate, hitting house parties and town hall meetings in the state where the country’s first presidential primary is held every four years. On all of those earlier trips, every man and woman I met on the street — this one, the town’s Main Street – had come to meet the candidate. So typically, he or she was an experienced comparative shopper of prospective presidents, with detailed knowledge and trick questions. This time, of course, that’s not the case. As I work my way down Main talking to people — panhandling for opinions, really — I’m reminded not only how often emotion trumps issues in the ballot box, but how unpredictably.
A young retail clerk in an all-organic clothing store, for instance, tells me that he supports McCain “because my friend’s parents want McCain.” Though he doesn’t want his name used, he is happy to chat — there’s not a customer in sight — and I ask if there’s anything about the Republican nominee himself that appeals to him. Nope, he says; it’s not McCain who has impressed him, but his friend’s father, whose opinion he values: “He’s a wicked hard-working guy who fixes up apartments.”
Nashua has twice been named the best place in the country to live by Money Magazine, and its downtown is lovely, if not terribly lively in this economy. The textile mills the town was built around have been turned into condos overlooking the Nashua River, which local activists have cleaned up considerably since the days when it was multi-colored from all the dye dumped into it.
Across the Main Street Bridge, Robert Guilmette is sitting in the parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts, having an iced coffee and taking a break from riding around on his new motorcycle. He is a maintenance worker who has lost two jobs in recent years when his employers went bankrupt. So his biggest issue is “being against jobs going overseas” — which would seem to put him more in line with Obama’s positions. Yet he, too, is voting for McCain. “He’s straightforward, and has experience, like they say on all the talk shows,” particularly Guilmette’s favorite, Hannity & Colmes on FOX News.
And Obama? “He wants to change too many things at once, and it’s not possible, so he couldn’t accomplish anything,” says Guilmette. Actually, he saw Obama in person when the candidate visited the local high school where Guilmette does maintenance work. “He was impressive, but he just seems like he’s got too many ideas, and wants too radical a change,” he says, and grins. “The principal played basketball with him, and he liked him.”
In a barbershop further down Main, the proprietor, Robert Roberge, is telling me about being a fifth-generation barber, still living in the house he grew up in, when an African-American kid runs in with a six-pack under his arm, and asks the price of a haircut. “Five dollars, but you can’t have that beer in here because you’re underage.” By 10 years, easy. “It’s not my beer,” the kid says. “It’s for my uncle. I’ll take it to him — he’s right over there — and I’ll be right back.” Sure you will, Roberge says as the kid dashes out. “I never saw a black person until I was 12 years old,” he tells me, and goes on to complain about how his hometown has since been “taken over” by minorities — Hispanics in particular — and homosexuals. (Six percent of the town’s 86,605 residents were Hispanic as of the last census, and 2 percent were black.)
Roberge considers himself an environmentalist — and knows a lot about dying coral reefs and alternative fuels — but he won’t be voting on those issues, or for that matter, voting at all. That’s a first for 57-year-old Roberge, who supported Kerry in ’04. But he’s had it with the Republicans, and would not even consider supporting Obama: “Like this black lady asked me when I was cutting her hair, where did he come from? A man who won’t pledge allegiance to the flag, who wants us all to speak Spanish? If even Jesse Jackson wants to cut his nuts off, what’s everybody else saying? I’m too old-school — an old redneck with red hair — to think a Muslim-based human being could be the proprietor of the Big House.”
We talk for some time, until a customer finally comes in. And it isn’t the kid with the beer.