Voters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating

Voters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating
© Greg Nash

Meet “Bob.” He is white, working-class, middle-aged, and has no college degree. For years, he voted mostly for Democrats, but in 2016 he and his wife became the archetypal Obama-to-Trump voters who flipped in large enough numbers in critical states to cost Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonYang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Top GOP legislator in California leaves party GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties MORE the election.  

For many Democratic analysts, "economic anxiety" was the number one reason many in Bob’s circle abandoned the Democratic Party in 2016. Eighty-one percent of them saw their wages falling below — or barely keeping pace with — the growing cost of living under the last administration. Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills MORE’s (D-Calif.) recent promise to raise their taxes to Obama levels, and panning the extra $80 in their paycheck as “crumbs,” isn’t necessarily winning them back.


Beyond the economic reasons for jumping ship, another other analysis found that "cultural anxiety" was a leading factor of defection away from the Democrats. The study concluded that approximately two-thirds of white working-class voters believed that the U.S. is losing its cultural identity; while half self-reported that they “feel like a stranger in (their) own country.” 

The left is keenly aware of their bailing blue collars. As New York magazine surmised, to take back Congress, Democrats must recalibrate their message to win back “non-woke white people.” Even left-leaning The Nation admitted that liberal attacks on American patriotism, by equating it to racism, xenophobia, and right-wing nationalism, may not have helped to keep moderate whites within their ranks.    

Now back to Bob.

Imagine he and his equally average group of white, working-class friends are at the local diner in Cloquet, Minn. How do you think Bob and his pals reacted to the news that newly-confirmed CIA chief Gina Haspel — an otherwise overwhelmingly qualified candidate — was opposed by most Democrats and three Republicans for her role in the program to waterboard suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks? Do you honestly think Bob’s breakfast buddies would demand she apologize for her actions if she was sitting there in front of a stack of pancakes and not the senate panel in D.C.?

Polling over the last several years confirms your likely response: Reuters/Ipsos found nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that tactics like waterboarding “can be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists." A Rasmussen poll had similar results, with only 33 percent disagreeing with the use of that type of tactic. 

Pew Research broke the numbers down further: Whites were 15 percentage points more likely to support the use of torture against terrorists over blacks, and 12 points over Hispanics; Millennials were 13 percentage points less likely to support waterboarding than those over 65; and those with advanced degrees were about 11 percentage points more likely to oppose these tactics over those who had some or no college.

So what’s Bob’s role?

The local diner in Cloquet is in the heart of rural Carlton County, where Clinton won by just 300 votes in 2016. It also happens to be in Minnesota’s 8th congressional district, which according to The Cook Political Report, is one of the most competitive House races in the country. Despite having a Democratic incumbent (who squeezed out a win), Trump dominated the district by 16 points. In short: Bob, his family, and his pals are on the front line of the 2018 midterm fight.

Minn-8 has some interesting demographics: It is 92 percent white; only 23 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher; the majority of its households earn middle-class salaries; and manufacturing, mining, quarrying and natural resource extraction account for 15 percent of its paychecks.  

Moreover four out of the eight Minnesota congressional districts are listed by Cook as “toss ups.” All share similar, but not identical, characteristics. However, none of the "toss ups" are like Minn-5 in the heart of Minneapolis, which the uber-left Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonMinnesota sues Juul over rise in youth vaping Jane Fonda calls for protecting water resources at weekly DC climate protest Progressives ramp up fight against Facebook MORE (D-Minn.) and Hillary Clinton easily won. 

The problem the Democrat’s face in 2018 is that seemingly everything they do as a party, like the Gina Haspel episode, is focused on winning districts like MN-5 and not MN-8. They are not taking NY mag’s advice and doing more to attract those "non-woke white people.” 

Bob’s breakfast table isn’t likely being swayed by the party’s proposals for reparations, a universal income, and budget-busting welfare programs; in much the same way that they aren’t being budged by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s opposition to the Haspel nomination.

In terms of the bigger picture, most of the 24 toss ups are predominately white middle-class districts. Sure there are suburban exceptions, like Va.-10 near D.C. and Calif.-48, a presidential swing district that hugs the California coast; some have large Hispanic populations, like Fla.-26 and Texas-7. Yet still, the path to a full House requires Democrats to go through middle-class parts of Michigan, upstate New York, rust-belt Pennsylvania, and central Ohio.

Another House race on Cook’s radar is Indiana’s 2nd, which is comprised of South Bend and a chunk of Northern Indian. It resembles the others demographically, but its more notable in that it is the district Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle Watchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world MORE (D-Ind.) represented for three terms.  

Now in the Senate, and facing one of the toughest races of his career, Donnelly quickly saw the political reality of upcoming the Haspel confirmation, becoming the second Democrat to announce his support; and did so without making any reservation about her controversial work against terrorists. The fact that only a handful of vulnerable Democrats have announced their support over this, in itself, should be surprising, given the overwhelming support they gave to John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanKrystal Ball: Yang's MSNBC boycott shows network has 'officially lost the left' Trump predicts 'historic' conclusions from DOJ's watchdog report on 'spying' Trump bemoans 'double standard' in Stone conviction MORE; and the struggle even safe-seated liberals like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocratic strategist: 'Medicare for All' exposes generational gap within party Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Biden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee MORE (I-Vt.) have in explaining why they supported one, but not the other.

Donnelly’s support for Haspel, along with that of Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinStatesmen seek bipartisan solutions to big challenges Both sides have reason to want speedy Trump impeachment trial No one wins with pro-abortion litmus test MORE (D-W.Va.), is unsurprising when we look at the demographics realize that Indiana and West Virginia have some of the highest percentages of whitemiddle-class, and blue-collar voters of any state in the union now held by a Democratic senator.  

As it turns out, even the politics of waterboarding is local. 

Joseph Borelli is a New York City council member, professor, former state legislator, Republican commentator and Lindsay Fellow at the Institute for State and Local Governance at City University of New York. He has been published in the New York Daily News, Washington Times, and Washington Examiner, and appears on Fox News, CNN, and BBC. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeBorelliNYC.