By Salena Zito
Sunday, October 3, 2010
INDEPENDENCE PASS, Colo.
A perilously narrow road, open only during summer, leads to the Continental Divide at 12,095 feet and a breathtaking peak.
Nearly 2,000 miles east stands a different, equally symbolic peak at the heart of America's democracy: At just more than 555 feet, the Washington Monument honors the first president and Revolutionary War commander who gave up life as a gentleman farmer to lead a band of "scrabble" to win liberty and independence.
More than distance and altitude separate "Main Street" Americans from those who govern them. The disconnect is so deep, so wide, that filling it is hard to imagine.
In Weirton, W.Va., Milan Ralich, who works in a paint store, says, "Here, our vision of the American dream looks far different than it does in Washington."
Wearing a crisp blue shirt embroidered with the Sherwin-Williams logo and his name, Ralich points to Weirton's massive steel mill.
"Thirty-eight years were spent in that plant, and you worked hard every day," he says. "It provided a good life."
Once employing 14,000, the mill is down to a few hundred. Ralich works at the paint store part time to make ends meet because of a scaled-back pension.
From the Rockies to small Massachusetts fishing towns and all points in between, Americans finally may get the "change election" they sought in 2008.
In less than a year, this columnist has traveled 6,609 miles, interviewed 432 people registered as or identifying with Democrats in 17 states, and written about scores of races for U.S. Senate and House seats and governors' mansions.
In the process, I lost my car's transmission, wore out four new tires (and promptly flattened two replacements), cracked a windshield, broke a passenger window, had emergency surgery, was chased by a funnel cloud on the Great Plains, staggered through two blizzards, was pelted by hail, wilted in record heat and even saw a lot of locusts (although a farmer assured me it wasn't a swarm).
All along "blue highways," Americans spoke about their disappointment in the change they so proudly supported in 2008 -- some whispering for fear of being labeled racist, some shouting at tea party rallies.
In coffee shops, on streetcorners and farms, at factories, the narrative was always the same: How could such great promise have let the country down so much, so quickly?
Beltway pundits talk of how angry America is. They seem incredulous that Americans somehow find this historic president's administration anything but exceptional.
What's exceptional is the blame coming from Washington, which only deepens the divide between the elite and Main Street.
The pundits blame Republicans -- or, when they feel particularly vicious, "teabaggers."
President Obama blames everyone but himself, shaking a finger at Republicans and tea partyers for stirring up the anger. Last week, he and Vice President Biden started blaming their own supporters, insisting they need to "buck up" and vote.
"Why should we?" wonders Canton, Ohio, native Cheryl Guy as she and husband Rudy visit Fort Necessity in Western Pennsylvania. A Democrat and registered nurse who is very disappointed with Obama, she has no intention of supporting Democrats in the coming midterm election; neither does her husband.
Americans voted for change in 2008 in record numbers. Voters of every age, color, shape and size, in red states and blue ones, registered as Republicans, Democrats or independents, then voted for something different. They bought into the dream that Obama was not elite; he was for the middle class and would champion reform.
What they got was no different from the guy they voted against in 2004: John Kerry.
Obama is no less out of touch than the Kerry whom America watched windsurf before the 2004 election -- the same man who said last week that one reason Democrats will lose this year is that "we have an electorate that doesn't always pay that much attention to what's going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what's happening."
Here's where Kerry and Obama are both wrong: The electorate that was influenced by a simple slogan -- "Yes, we can" -- in 2008 actually is very well-informed.
This time, that electorate isn't voting for a dream, but for its pocketbook.
And if Republicans are lucky enough to win, they'd best remember that those voters will hold them accountable.
Salena Zito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7879.