Yes, New Hampshire has projects. While New Hampshire has a high median income, $57,352 in 2004 — £31,438 at 2004 exchange rates, compared with £24,302 for the rest of the U.S. of A. and £21,700 for England and Wales — the state still has lots of ordinary people.
Now, we don’t knock on every door. We’ve got a list of registered voters, and we only go to Democratic households. The standard spiel is, “Hi there, we’re with Barack Obama, have you decided on a candidate yet?” Beat … beat … then, regardless of the answers, “Well, what issues are most important to you?” Followed by then the sales pitch. Which can last for half-an-hour, if you hit if off with the person at the door.
In New Hampshire, the pitch includes telling people when and where they can personally meet the candidate. Now, I’m the first person to say that the American political system is entirely broken. Congressional districts have metastasized into gerrymandered monstrosities of 700,000 people. The Senate is a travesty by definition, and I wonder about my countrymen’s lack of outrage about its existence. And we won’t mention the Electoral College — why should the switch of a few thousand votes in Ohio been enough to save the American people from the results of their own temporary insanity in 2004?
But for all its faults, having the primary season kick off in places like New Hampshire is, quite simply, a Very Good Thing. It brings a moment of sanity to a media-drenched political machine badly cobbled together to select a chief executive for a continental nation of 300 million people. And I love it.
All the individuals discussed below are real people, although they also happen to be archetypes. They’re just the most archetypical of the actual individuals encountered during our door-knocking.
There was Parole Guy, in a private house across the street from the projects, with the tattoos running up his right arm, the odd scar around his left nostril, and the anklet. Parole Guy was a Richardson man, his mind was made up, and hey, his girlfriend and kid were hollering in the next room.
Then there was Crazy Old Man, who lived in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac — no, the connotation of “cul-de-sac” is all wrong, he lived on a dead end — with peeling paint, a yard full of car parts, and an old station wagon that desperately needed said parts. Crazy Old Man nodded when he heard that we were from the Obama campaign, and then said, “Well, you know, boys, I have a beef with Obama. He says he’s an American, but he swore in on a Koran!”
Ah ... okay. I chose to assume (probably correctly) that this fellow had merely confused Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) with Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota). I also chose not to examine why exactly this gentleman thought that there was a contradiction between being an American and being a Muslim. (Ellison, I’d like to add, swore in on an English translation of the Koran previously owned by Thomas Jefferson.)
You also had What-Me-Vote Lady, a young and childless woman who lived in the corner unit of a clump of four newish attached townhomes. She was young, and rather annoyed about the war (she had a brother in the National Guard), the economy (she was okay, but she was worried about all the subprime defaults), social security (her parents depended on it, and she didn’t want it to be “privatized”), and health insurance (what health insurance?) ... but why should she vote, when neither her individual vote nor the collective will of the people of New Hampshire will be decisive?
And never count out the Bring Back Bill voters. Until a month ago, it was rare to meet a voter who had decided on a candidate, with the exception of Bill Richardson. (There’s something about Bill, it seems.) Today, the level of Richardsonianism stands ... but the lawn-signs read Hillary. (When they don’t read Romney or Huckabee, who seem to be leading the lawn-sign race on the dark side.) When asked, one very nice old Eastern European lady, had to be around 80, said, “Well, I can’t vote for her husband,” but Bring-Back-Bill often seems to be the subtext.
“She’s got foreign policy experience — look at how Bill Clinton handled things.”
“She can take on the GOP sleaze machine — look how Bill Clinton did it, even with his shameful behavior.”
“She’ll be fiscally responsible — look at Bill’s record.”
It’s hard for those of us who aren’t big Hillary fans, and I am not a Hillary fan for reasons I’d be happy to get into in comments. Which isn’t to say that she doesn’t beat all the GOP candidates cold — after all, Democratic candidates aren’t required to spout lies and denigrate the Bill of Rights in order to get the nomination. But I have some worries about her and what her presidency might bring, and I have some convictions that other candidates would bring great advantages to the United States and her people than she cannot. Which doesn’t seem to be stopping her support from growing.
Marine Mother was a surprise — “My son was always crazy. He should have joined the Army, like I did. Better still, the Chair Force.” She was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt. I liked her.
She had Republican neighbors — yes! In a housing project! — a nice elderly white couple who came home while we were talking. After a brief discussion of parking spaces — it was clear that they were friendly — Marine Mom couldn’t resist needling them. “Hey! They’re from the Obama campaign! They’ve got some interesting things to say! C’mon!”
Marine Mom also pre-emptively (and unnecessarily, I might add) headed us off at the pass by saying, “I’m not going to vote for anyone just because they’re black or a woman.” I laughed and agreed. “By that logic,” I said, not entirely accurately, because I’m, like, not of Italian descent, “I’d have to vote for Rudy, and ’s not gonna happen.”
So was Young Mother of Big Family. (“Big” means “two or more kids” in this context.) “Hey! Shut up!” It is refreshing to see modern Americans raising their children in a healthy way, and those of you who know me will know that this statement is not ironic.
You meet a lot of YMBFs. They’re all different — one mentioned how she didn’t talk to her brother any more, because of politics, and it serves the bastard right that he’s lost his health insurance. (We asked her to start talking to him again.) Another YMBF was worried about student loans and health insurance. Her cute little girl was covered by a non-SCHIP New Hampshire program; but too many mothers had children who were just taking their chances.
Her next door neighbor had a big Yankees chain on and a straight-outta-East Harlem accent. We had to end our conversation when he asked for her help with some sort of home-maintenance thing that I really feel like I should be able to remember. I was surprised. First, it was a project. They rent. From the government. (Yes, even I have stupid conservative instincts buried deep inside.) Second, New Hampshire is a state where you see more Red Sox flags than American banners, and it’s not like there’s any sort of Old Glory shortage around here. What was he doing with a Yankees pendant and the kind of accent that only occurs on people born and raised between the Oranges and New Haven?
I have been equally surprised, in fact, to learn that a New York accent makes New Hampshirites more comfortable than if you speak perfect Television. I have no explanation, not so deep in Red Sox Nation.
One of the Young Mothers turned out to be Asian-American. Her age was listed as 28. So I, of course, asked her if her mother was home when she opened the door. Thankfully, that is, in fact, a complement.
(Coincidentally, the same thing had just happened to me in reverse. We’d had a long conversation with another YMBF about the differences between the Perkins and Stafford loan programs. I mentioned how great it feels to finally pay your loans off, which led her to ask my age. I’m old enough to feel very happy at the surprise on her face when I revealed it.)
Finally, there’s Blue Collar Guy. Blue Collar Guy is friendly, usually 50-something, and undecided but partial to Bill Richardson. Blue Collar Guy will stand outside his house (a house belonging to a Blue Collar Guy is pictured below), and say, “Sure, yeah, they all want to stop the war. And they all want to stop aliens from getting into the country. And they all want to stop the insurance companies, and high oil prices, and Barry Bonds. But that’s because that’s what we want to hear.”
He wants proof that your Democratic candidate (a) has guts; and (b) understands that rich people aren’t “middle class.” (Marine Mom is looking for the same thing, I should add.)
Two Obama anecdotes come in very handy here. They have the advantage of being true, and encapsulating a lot of what I like about the guy. First, the time he told a bunch of union muckety-mucks in Michigan that higher CAFE standards were coming under an Obama administration.
Second, his response to Hillary Clinton when she told him that she was against removing the $97,000 per year cap on FICA taxes.
Clinton: “I do not want to fix the problems of Social Security on the backs of middle-class families and seniors. If you lift the cap completely, that is a $1 trillion tax increase. I don't think we need to do that.”
Obama: “I will be very brief on this because, Hillary, I have heard you say this is a trillion-dollar tax increase on the middle class by adjusting the cap. Understand that only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,000 a year. So 6 percent is not the middle class. It is the upper class.”
Is the number correct? As of the third quarter of 2007, the Current Population Survey indicated that only 10 percent of American wage and salary workers over age-25 earned more than $87,048 per year. The Obama campaign calculated the six percent figure by taking the CPS data — available at the 10th, 25th, median, and 75th percentiles — and fitting it to a Gompertz distribution, from which they extrapolated the sixth percentile.
Then there are the random conversations with guys stooping, people washing their cars (well, not yesterday, it was too cold), parents playing with their kids.
It’s a good experience. I can’t recommend it more strongly, and that goes especially for you high-earning types, no matter your cynicism level. You know who you are. Trust me. The education is worth the opportunity cost.
And, like jury duty or joining the National Guard, it makes you a good American.