Washington forgets small-town America

· Sep 5, 2001 Tweet

“It was cheesy, and he knew it.”

That was the reply of my associate after taking pictures of President Bush sawing boards and laying tiles during a photo opportunity. The pseudo-carpentry took place during a Labor Day rally at a carpenters’ union trading center in Kaukauna, Wisc.

The comment encapsulated my feelings about campaigns in general. I could not understand how rallies, commercials, and cheesy photo-ops could be very effective. They certainly had no effect on me. I actually found these traditional campaign tools rather humorous and the blatant pandering a bit embarrassing.

But then I remembered a realization I had just a few weeks earlier upon my return from a summer in Washington, D.C.

After picking me up from the airport, my father was kind enough to take me out to eat at the nicest restaurant in my hometown. I soon realized that two months in Washington was enough to induce culture shock over the fact that a meal could cost only $15 (remember, this is the nicest restaurant in town!).

Soon after being seated, I overheard a gentleman at the next table ask what the price was for the “Catch of the Day.” I reflected that not only would I be too embarrassed to do the same in Washington, but also I would definitely order “The Catch,” regardless of price. It would be mortifying to do otherwise, even if I was a poor college intern.

Suddenly it hit me. A mere two months in Washington and I had already forgotten about small town America.

Of course, I was not alone. Few, if anyone, in Washington remembers small town America.

Small town American is awed and deeply appreciative when the leader of the free world takes the time to visit. In Kaukauna we witnessed the president make an appearance in front of 1,700 union members, traditional Democrats, who cheered for nearly a minute and a half and chanted “George Bush” as he was introduced. Signs and billboards up and down the highway welcomed him to Green Bay. All listened attentively to the president’s speech, and the intermittent cheering suggested that the crowd agreed with a quite a bit of it, or at least they did now.

Needless to say, our critique during the car ride home was not quite as kind. But once I took a step back and realized the position from which we were making our critique, I realized the speech was not for us, but for those carpenters who care infinitely more about the Green Bay Packers than they do about Washington politics.

In fact, small town America usually notices Washington only when they are directly affected. And the number of issues that fall under this classification may be small, but the feelings provoked are not. In short, while Washington is pragmatic, small town America is principled.

For example, the congressman I interned for comes from a very pro-life district, and thus it is no surprise that he himself is pro-life — quite avidly so. But the reality is that he has no choice. I witnessed this by reading constituent letters during President Bush’s prolonged deliberation on stem-cell research. The vast majority equated stem-cell research with infanticide — an extreme position, regardless of your views on the issue. But such sentiment is widespread, leaving the congressman with no viable political option other than opposing the research (I do not know his personal feelings on the issue).

Similarly, those that support gun control often seem puzzled why they are unable to enact more legislation. The answer is that there are millions of pro-gun Americans who vote for politicians solely on their stance on guns. Polls may indicate that most Americans favor gun control, but polls do not reflect the intensity of those that favor guns.

But the starkest difference between Washington and small town America is that while Washington sees money in millions and billions, small town America sees money in dollars and cents. For those in small town America, the “Catch of the Day” may just break the budget. In Washington, politicians fight for earmarked pork, and are concerned that they have not “gotten anything” for a major town in their district.

This fundamental difference in the perception of money is the most compelling argument for local government and lower taxes. Suppose fiscally conservative congressmen fight for pork, because the money will be spent anyway. Making it worse is that there is no price to pay for spending too much, especially if your district is seeing its share of pork. I thought I spent money liberally when I was in Washington — I can only imagine my behavior had the money not been my own.

Small town America is impressed by the president sawing a board. It is about time for Washington to understand the voting power and be impressed by the fiscal sanity of small town America.


This article was published Sep 5, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Sep 5, 2001 at 12:00 am


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