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Clinton’s ‘Rust Belt’ tour courts white working class

Hillary Clinton took a bus tour across the US “rust belt” region this weekend in a quest to win over white, working class voters who tend to support populist Republican Donald Trump. With her husband ex-president Bill Clinton in tow, the former first lady, top diplomat, ex-senator and now Democratic presidential candidate took her seat on a blue bus that meandered over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Philadelphia to Columbus, Ohio.

Here on this green and hilly landscape steel mills have been closing since the late 1970s, and many factories have shuttered since the 1990s. The 2008-2009 recession further aggravated despair, and the following economic recovery has produced only a fraction of jobs that pay as much as the lost industrial ones. “I understand that there are people who feel like the economy is not working well for them,” Clinton said at a rally in Harrisburg on Friday.

“But I understand that. Because I’m not satisfied with the status quo, are you?” she asked, joined by Bill Clinton and her vice presidential running mate Tim Kaine. If elected, Clinton promises to implement what she says is the biggest jobs program since World War II, focused on manufacturing and infrastructure. Nevertheless “there’s a lot of mistrust of Hillary Clinton, and it comes from Bill,” who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), said John Russo, a labor expert from the region currently at Georgetown University.

“The working class has been pretty angry on trade issues given the many manufacturing-related jobs that have been lost because of NAFTA,” Russo said. Few anticipated the massive loss of US manufacturing jobs – mostly to lower waged Mexico – after Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law in December 1993. In time many of those same jobs moved to even lower wage countries in Asia. US manufacturing jobs continued to hemorrhage in the following years.

In Pittsburgh, a historic steel city that has largely shifted to being a medical and educational center, Clinton slammed Trump for doing nothing for working class Americans. She even quipped that his Trump brand ties are made in China. “So Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again. He can start by actually making things in America again,” Clinton said at a rally in Johnstown.

Trump has broken with the Republican Party’s age-old free-market orthodoxy and gone protectionist, cashing in politically on this region’s malaise over lost industrial jobs. Trump blames the losses on Bill Clinton and his trade deals, and claims that it will be the same under Hillary Clinton.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are key “swing states” in November’s presidential race. Winning one or the other, or both, could be crucial to a Republican or Democratic White House victory. By increasing white voter turnout, Trump could counter Clinton’s lead in large cities like Philadelphia or Cleveland, where African-American voters who tend to vote Democratic are concentrated.

Near Pittsburgh, which Hillary Clinton visited Saturday, lies Monessen, population 7,500 – a shadow of what the town was when two huge steel plants were open there, employing some 22,000 people. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy made the trip in this Democratic stronghold to praise its industrial strength. In June, it was Donald Trump’s turn – and he came to declare “US economic independence” in a vitriolic speech decrying globalisation.

“We are going to put American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country. This alone will create massive numbers of jobs,” Trump said. From his office overlooking the Monongahela River, Monessen Mayor Louis Mavrakis, 79, tries to stay positive as he mentions that some 400 vacant homes set to be razed. Mavrakis is a Democrat who has never voted Republican. But he refused to say whether he would vote for Trump in November.

“I’m disgusted with both sides, with our government with the way they give the foreign countries that hate us,” Mavrakis said. “You’re giving them billions of dollars, and they hate us, and you can’t even take care of your own people? That’s stupidity.” According to Mavrakis “there’s a revolution going on in this country right now, and these idiots in Washington, DC don’t even know it.” Mavrakis predicted that Trump “is going to get more Democrat votes than any other Republican president that ever ran, just from this area right here.”

Ivan Couronne, "Clinton’s ‘Rust Belt’ tour courts white working class," Business Recorder. 2016-08-02.
Keywords: Political science , Working-Class , Economic policy , Federal government , Industrial management , Women presidential candidates , US , NAFTA