Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Nati Harnik/AP)
Opinion writer

Let’s begin with a story. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was at an event in Ohio when she said, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” You remember that, because the quote, truncated and taken out of context, was played over and over again in the media and held up by Republicans as proof that Clinton was targeting hard-working coal miners for extinction in the service of an elitist environmental agenda.

What you probably never heard is what she said before and after:

I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.

I bring up that old story because in so many ways it’s being repeated right now. It was emblematic of both how Democrats deal with issues that touch on the environment and the economy, and how they deal with voters, communities and states that are unlikely to support them. In this time of deep polarization and identity-driven politics, there is a profound difference in how the two parties approach the “other” America.

Democratic presidential candidates are spending a great deal of time in Iowa, demonstrating to farmers that they understand their concerns. They hold forums where they talk about soybean prices and the marketing practices of seed suppliers; they propose plans on issues from agricultural monopolies to rural broadband. They’re “reaching out” so hard, their arms are about to pop out of their shoulder sockets.

If you missed all the times Republican presidential candidates held forums in urban areas to show Americans who usually vote for Democrats that they get where they’re coming from and would like their votes, that’s because it never happened. That’s just not how Republicans operate, particularly President Trump. From the moment he began his 2016 campaign, his message to people in areas that wouldn’t be voting for him was essentially that they could all go straight to hell. And right after the election was over, he went on a “victory tour,” visiting only the states he won.

But it's about more than what happens during a campaign, which is why I want to return for a moment to coal. While pretending to be outraged that Clinton acknowledged the truth about the decline of the coal industry, Trump spent an unusual amount of time promising to bring back all those coal jobs by getting rid of the environmental regulations that were supposedly holding the industry back. "For those miners, get ready," he said in West Virginia, "because you're gonna be working your asses off."

But that’s not what happened. In America today, there are only about 53,000 coal miners left. That’s the same number of people employed by GameStop, the Blockbuster of video games, another enterprise whose days may be numbered. A story in The Post about what happens to coal communities when the plant shuts down offers this context:

The vanishing of coal plants from the American landscape began years ago, but it has persisted under President Trump, who came into office promising to revitalize the coal industry. He has rolled back environmental regulations meant to curb pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, installed a former coal lobbyist as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and tweeted in favor of keeping certain units operating. And yet, utilities have continued to shut down plants.

The main reason? Coal can’t compete against cheaper, cleaner alternatives, such as natural gas and solar and wind energy.

More coal plant capacity disappeared during Trump’s first two years in office than during President Barack Obama’s entire first term, and the closures are set to continue in 2019 and beyond.

No one could accuse the Trump administration of not wanting to help the coal industry. But because Trump officials bought their own baloney about environmental regulations being the source of the industry’s decline (when automation and the dropping prices of natural gas and renewables are much larger factors), they made no plans to help communities such as the one profiled in that story.

If anything, they have tried to make the lives of the people there worse, by undermining the safety net programs that could mitigate the economic difficulty they find themselves in. So what’s the Republican plan to help the places where coal jobs are disappearing? Hmm … more tax cuts, I guess?

And this highlights another important difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats don’t pretend that moving away from fossil fuels won’t harm the people who work in those industries, which is why every plan Democrats produce to address climate change also includes proposals for things such as job training and economic development to make the transition less painful. We can argue about how effective those programs might be, but they’re always part of the plan.

In contrast, when Republicans come along and slash environmental regulations or propose corporate welfare to prop up the fossil fuel industry, they offer precisely nothing to help the people who will be harmed by the resulting pollution. It never even occurs to them.

We see variations on this theme over and over again, whether it’s farmers in Iowa or coal miners in West Virginia or poor people unfortunate enough to live in states run by Republicans: Democrats say to them, “I may not have a chance to win the election in this state, but I still want to help you.” To take just one example, Democrats have tried desperately to persuade Republican-run states to accept the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid and give their low-income citizens health coverage, yet in one state after another, Republicans have steadfastly refused, a decision that not only harms their citizens but also threatens rural hospitals and hurts their state budgets.

So the next time you see Democrats accused of not “reaching out” enough to people in rural areas, or people in coal country, or people in the Deep South, remind yourself that, in fact, Democrats reach out to all those people all the time, whether they have a chance to win their votes or not. And remember that when it comes to the places lots of Democrats live and the challenges they face, Republicans are doing no reaching out at all.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s latest attempt to protect coal looks positively socialist

Catherine Rampell: The Trump administration learns that fighting gravity is hard

Letters to the Editor: Trump doesn’t actually care about coal country

Katrina vanden Heuvel: The ‘best economy’ ever isn’t working for working people

Art Cullen: Five 2020 Democrats took the stage in Iowa. None had answers.