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A Democrat for Main Street

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

If you're looking for a land that time forgot, you couldn't do much better than the mountain country of central Pennsylvania. On a sparkling summer day it's a tableau of lazy rivers and deeply green forested hills, of cornfields and farmhouses (some abandoned) and steel mills (many shuttered), and one little town after another where the buildings on Main Street look pretty much as they did in the 1940s (except those that are boarded up). Many prospects please here, but nothing bespeaks either newness or prosperity (except the occasional Wal-Mart, which bespeaks newness and the absence of prosperity).

Politically, north-central Pennsylvania is one of the most venerable Republican terrains in the land, and it's grown more Republican in recent decades with the closing of unionized steel and textile mills. James Carville once famously observed that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. As if to confirm Carville's thesis, when I attended the Mifflin County Youth Fair and Hog Auction last Saturday in the company of Bob Casey, the state treasurer and the Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, there was a pickup truck in the parking lot with an illustration, in the front license-plate frame, of a nekkid woman in front of a Confederate flag. (My immediate reaction, I must confess, was to suspect that Carville had planted the truck there for the benefit of any stray political reporters.)

Mifflin County is not the kind of place that many statewide Democratic candidates visit, but Casey is hardly your standard-issue Democrat. A devout, Jesuit-educated Catholic, Casey is anti-abortion and pro-gun, and when he is asked about national security, he begins by stating his desire to double the size of our Special Forces (Army Rangers, Green Berets, Delta Force, Navy SEALs).

He is also studiedly vague about what we should do in Iraq -- though he's not vague at all when finding fault with Santorum's willingness to stay the course with George W. Bush, whatever that course may be. "Rick Santorum never asked any tough questions of the president about the war, about our strategy, about our exit and occupation strategies, about the body armor we gave our troops," Casey tells an appreciative audience at a Steelworkers union hall in Lewistown (where the steel mill that once employed thousands of workers now employs 500).

No intellectual sleight-of-hand is required to link Santorum to Bush. "Rick Santorum has voted with George W. Bush 98 percent of the time," Casey tells his listeners at every campaign stop. "When two politicians agree 98 percent of the time, one of them is not necessary."

With Northeastern and Middle Atlantic states clearly moving in a more Democratic direction, Santorum -- whose voting record and social philosophy are more suited to an Alabama Republican -- heads the list of Republican senators whom the Democrats think they can defeat this year. But there are enough places like Mifflin County in Pennsylvania to make it a real fight, which is why the Democrats have rallied to the socially conservative, economically progressive Casey. Early on, the Senate Democratic leadership (Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer) and the state's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell (a onetime Casey opponent), made it clear that Casey was their guy.

Which, if you believe all the nonsense that's been written since Joe Lieberman's primary defeat about those crazy blogistas rebelling against the Democratic establishment and pushing the party to the left, should mean that the bloggers and their ilk ought to be wailing about Casey. In fact, they're doing nothing of the sort. For one thing, the authors of such partisan blogs as the Daily Kos understand that the Democrats have to beat Santorum in order to retake the Senate and raise the political discourse above the level of Santorum's deliberate primitivism (Santorum once equated gay relationships to "man-on-dog" sex). They understand that Casey is the Democrat best suited to the task. Most liberal groups are campaigning mightily for Casey (though support for a Green Party candidate among Naderistic nihilists has cut Casey's lead over Santorum in yesterday's Quinnipiac Poll to 6 percentage points).

And the liberal case for Casey is a strong one -- particularly on trade. A critic of both the North American and Central American free-trade agreements, Casey wants trade pacts that require signatory nations to enforce worker rights and environmental protections. A number of leading Democratic senatorial candidates this year -- Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Vermont's Bernie Sanders (an independent who's in effect a Democrat) and, yes, Connecticut's Ned Lamont -- share Casey's perspective on trade. Their victories would shift, perhaps decisively, the Senate Democratic caucus toward a trade policy in which Main Street is taken at least as seriously as Wall Street. It's a shift, if the Main Streets of central Pennsylvania are any indication, that would come not a moment too soon.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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