The next primaries are in West Virginia and Kentucky, states where the number of poor whites is high and consequently the Obama campaign expects to get crushed; there’s a good chance that even if Clinton dropped out tomorrow, she’d still beat Obama in those states.
West Virginia and Kentucky are the second and third highest coal-producing states. They have, respectively, the highest and second-highest number of people employed by the coal industry [PDF] — indeed, together they represent 46 percent of total coal mine employment in the country.
Facing this situation, what should Obama do? Clinton showed with the gas tax farce that there is no pander to "hard-working Americans, white Americans" too crass or desperate. She’s been wallowing in ham-handed conservative populism, downing shots, eulogizing her mill-working grandfather, and recounting her youthful fishing trips. Next week she’ll probably show up in a W.Va. coal mine swingin’ a pick, shootin’ small critters, and promising miners that she’ll double their wages for the summer.
Should Obama try to keep up? Should he appeal to the economic and social anxieties of rural whites in W.Va. and Ky. by promising that he’ll take care of Big Coal, and Big Coal will take care of them? He’s already doing so in Kentucky.
Maybe there’s another way, though. His response to Clinton’s gas tax proposal was to reject it as a Washington gimmick that would offer the illusion of relief in the short-term — long enough to get a politician into office — but do nothing to address long-term energy issues. That rejection was coupled with a principled energy platform that would address those issues.
Why not try the same thing in W.Va. and Ky.? Start by telling the truth: As president, he would stop the expansion of dirty coal. No new coal plants would be built unless they could fully sequester their greenhouse gas emissions. He would offer R&D money, loan guarantees, and subsidies to assist in the development of cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration, but it’s likely to take at least 10-20 years, and when/if it exists, there’s no guarantee it would be more than a small portion of our energy balance. In other words: There is going to be no coal boom in an Obama administration.
Even if Obama did nothing but continue the status quo, coal is getting more expensive, coal plants are falling by the wayside, and the number of jobs provided by coal is falling, as it has been for some time:
Regardless, coal has been no friend to W.Va. or Ky. The areas that mine coal are the ones where poverty is concentrated:
That’s the truth politicians refuse to tell the people of W.Va. and Ky.: The future is not in coal. Clinging to coal is clinging to a sinking ship.
Of course, it’s crucial to couple this with a positive message. An Obama administration will not pander to poor Southern whites and then forget them in office. It will bring the resources of the federal government to bear on driving economic development in poor rural areas — that means "green jobs," but more than just that. It means stimulating the development of other industries and revenue sources by spending on infrastructure, education, public works programs, and a decent social safety net. An Obama administration will try to pay these areas back for the sacrifices they’ve made in the name of providing the country with cheap electricity.
It probably wouldn’t help him win W.Va. or Ky. — it’s unlikely anything could — but it might cement his nascent national reputation as a straight shooter who tells the difficult truths instead of pandering. Maybe he could defy conventional wisdom by treating rural white voters like adults, helping them plan a real path to economic health and sustainability rather than telling them fairy tales about the continuing viability of earth’s dirtiest fuel.