Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hillary meets coal reality -- May 5, 2016 column


When Hillary Clinton went to coal country Monday, she ran smack into a wall of anger – and it wasn’t built by Donald J. Trump.

Clinton built it herself, word by word.

Like most politicians, Clinton tries to please everyone all the time, tuning her pitch to different audiences. Once in a while, though, real life intervenes, as it did in Williamson, West Virginia. 

While hundreds of protesters outside shouted “We want Trump” and “Go home, Hillary,” Clinton talked with local people, among them Bo Copley, a 39-year-old father of three who recently lost his job as a coal mine foreman and maintenance planner.

Copley handed Clinton a picture of his family and quietly asked:   

“How can you say you’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend? Because those people out there don’t see you as a friend.”

In March at a CNN town hall in Ohio, Clinton had said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Understandably, many in coal country are still livid.

“What I said was totally out of context with what I meant,” Clinton said in Williamson, blaming herself for her “misstatement.”

Clinton’s views on coal and climate change matter because West Virginia’s primary is Tuesday.

Before he wrapped up the Republican nomination, Trump won many hearts with promises to end President Barack Obama’s “war on coal” and bring back the coal industry and coal jobs.

Politicians have been talking about helping Appalachia since John F. Kennedy traversed West Virginia in 1960, but the region still struggles. Clean energy may be America’s future, but, as Copley reminded Clinton, real people are suffering in the transition.

In 2008, Clinton sailed to victory over Obama in the West Virginia primary. Now, Bernie Sanders, who continues his uphill fight for the Democratic nomination, leads her 45 percent to 37 percent in the state, with 18 percent of voters undecided, a Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday found.

Clinton was narrowly ahead among Democrats, but Sanders held a commanding advantage among independents. Independents – about 20 percent of the state’s electorate -- can vote in either primary.

How Clinton came to eat her words reflects a risk politicians face when trying to be all things to all people.

Asked in March to make her case to poor whites who vote Republican, Clinton said she was the only candidate with a plan to bring economic opportunity to coal country with clean renewable energy after coal miners and companies were out of business.

She talked about uniting the country but referred to miners as “those people.”

“We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn out our lights and power our factories.

“Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on,” she said then.

Clinton wants to expand President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, tough new Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at curbing coal consumption. The Supreme Court has put the regs on hold, pending review.

Her $30 billion plan to revitalize coal country includes preserving miners’ pensions and benefits and spending more money for roads and bridges and economic development.

She even says she’ll bring her husband out of retirement and put him in charge of helping coal country. Bill Clinton won West Virginia in the 1992 and 1996 general elections – something no Democratic presidential nominee has done since.

But times have changed. The former president was booed and heckled May 1, in Logan, W.Va.

“I came here to tell you that I care about what you’re going through,” he said. “I get it.”

Tuesday’s vote will be a test of the old Clinton magic.

The Facebook page for the West Virginia for Bernie Sanders group invites Hillary Clinton’s supporters to join, saying: “We’ve been waiting for you.”

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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