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Reformed Swinger

by Kevin D. Williamson

Pennsylvania is a Democratic state, but Romney could win it

In Philadelphia, a very grand old gentleman is taking friends to lunch at the Union League. “This club is going to hell,” he says, his eyes darting around the dining room. “They let Democrats join now. Can you imagine? And I hear they even let” – here he casts sidelong conspiratorial glances around the table – “I hear they even let Jews in.” This last bit is delivered in a pro-grade stage whisper that leaves nearby businessmen squirming. He doses his snapper soup with sherry, a twinkle of gleeful malice in his eye. It’s his little joke: As everybody in the room knows, the grand old gentleman is himself Jewish, in precisely the style that William F. Buckley Jr. was Irish-American, which is to say about a half a degree below Ralph Lauren on the WASPiness scale. He has performed this ritual before, and presumably it is his way of letting the Establishment of which he is a pillar know that things forgiven are not necessarily things forgotten.

The Union League may be the citadel of Philadelphia Republicans, but their heartland is in the suburbs and their spine is the Main Line, the vestigial accretion of enmansioned old money congealed west of the city along the tracks of the old Pennsylvania Railroad. These are at best Chamber of Commerce Republicans, and their conservatism is for the most part a conservatism of manners. If you thought country-club Republicans were fair-weather friends, the cricket-club Republicans are bound to disappoint you. As they have, over and over.

Every four years, there is a little act of political theater that unfolds like this: Pundits proclaim that the presidential election might very well be decided in Pennsylvania, and that Pennsylvania will be decided in the four suburban counties ringing Philadelphia: Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester. Pennsylvania’s status as a perennial swing state is proclaimed. And then Pennsylvania votes for the Democrat. There are millions of Americans today who are voting and legally imbibing alcoholic beverages who had not been born the last time Pennsylvania gave its Electoral College votes to a man with an “R.” next to his name. Pennsylvania can put a Club for Growth man in the Senate and a pro-life Republican in the governor’s mansion, but can’t quite see its way to endorsing a Bob Dole, a George W. Bush, or a John McCain for the White House.

Main Line Republicans may be the last of the unreconstructed pre-Gingrich GOP. “Republican voters in the Philadelphia suburbs are more liberal on guns, gays, and abortion than Democrats are in the rest of the state,” says Terry Madonna, the highly regarded scholar of politics at Franklin and Marshall College. “Obama’s moves on gay rights, his talking about contraception – that’s popular.” But this is not going to be a guns-gays-abortion election. In the gloaming of the economy, the sunshine promises of Barack Obama are dim memories, even within sight of the polo field in Bryn Mawr and the mansions of Villanova (average family income $366,904). Along Lancaster Avenue, the main business thoroughfare through the suburban townships of Lower Merion and Radnor, vacant storefronts document the unfulfilled promise of Pennsylvania’s anemic recovery.

Even with the employment and investment boom associated with the Marcellus Shale, employment in Pennsylvania is growing at half the national average, and the national average stinks.

And that is Mitt Romney’s opening here, if he has one. “We’ve elected some of the most liberal Democrats,” Madonna says. “Ed Rendell was very liberal socially and spent out of his mind — $4 billion in community development on top of everything else. But in 1990 we reelected Bob Casey Sr. by 1 million votes, in spite of the voters’ knowing about him being not only pro-life but wildly pro-life. We’re capable of electing liberals and conservatives of all kinds. Tom Corbett is pro-life, and he won by nine points. It all depends on what’s happening in any particular election.” Or on what’s not happening: strong economic growth.

“Young people coming out of college – the opportunities just plain aren’t there,” says Robert Godshall, a 50-year veteran of Pennsylvania politics who represents upper Montgomery County in the state legislature. “Our overall unemployment has dropped, and it’s less than the national average, but that’s only because of the Marcellus Shale. If that weren’t in play at this point, we’d be up there, maybe higher than the national average.” His advice to Romney: Keep hitting energy. “The EPA is not friendly,” he says, “and people in the industry know that. This is going to be tougher for Obama than people think – it isn’t automatic.” Tom Smith, a coal-mine operator from the western part of the state who is challenging Bob Casey Jr. for his Senate seat, has made federal energy regulation the centerpiece of his campaign.

But it’s still an uphill fight for Romney. When Pennsylvania went for John F. Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960, the Main Line went for Richard Nixon two to one. Montgomery County, once heralded by President Nixon as the nation’s model Republican operation, today has more registered Democrats than Republicans, as does neighboring Bucks County. Chester and Delaware counties remain Republican, but are less robustly so than in the past, and in the suburbs as a whole there is less strong party identification and more independent voting behavior.

“It used to be the case that all you needed was an ‘R.’ in back of your name,” Godshall says. “It was automatic.” In Delaware County, legend had it that if you weren’t registered as a Republican your trash wouldn’t be picked up. That’s the kind of clout that transcends local politics. “Philadelphia used to come out with a 250,000 Democratic majority in the presidential elections, but we could wipe that out in the suburbs,” Godshall recalls. “Today, it’s a little different.” Barack Obama’s advantage over McCain in Philadelphia in 2008 was nearly 500,000 votes, and the suburbs don’t hang together politically any longer. Governor Corbett lost Montgomery and Delaware counties but won Bucks and Chester. Senator Toomey split the counties and came out of the suburbs with a 22,000-vote deficit that he made up in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere.

President Obama won those four counties by more than 200,000 votes in 2008 and is not taking them for granted this time around: He has opened field offices left and right and already has aired two television ads. Romney says he’s “all in” in Pennsylvania, but it is not clear by “all in” he means what President Obama means by “all in.”

“In 2008 we were the second-most-advertised-to and third-most-visited state,” Madonna says. “And Romney’s coming through on this little bus, while his campaign has not spent a nickel on a commercial. The Obama campaign is spending, to say nothing of the PACs. Romney has to explain what he will do different from Obama and be more specific about what he’ll do. You can go a long way on just criticizing an incumbent during a recession. But, unlike Reagan, who had a full-scale conservative platform, Romney’s a blank slate.”

Reagan also had a more conservative electorate when he Godzilla’d his way through Pennsylvania in 1980 and 1984. In subsequent years, the Philadelphia Left grew more militant and more effective, which, along with a city wage tax and a crime problem, drove a great many urban liberals out into the suburbs – where they promptly began voting for the same politicians and policies that rendered much of Philadelphia unlivable in the first place. That along with a dose of blueblood disdain for George W. Bush transformed the suburbs: Lower Merion, in which Democrats had never controlled the local government, swung all the way over, and Republicans now occupy a mere four of the 14 seats on the board of commissioners. They have lost control of the school board, too. The nearby town of Narberth elected the first Democratic mayor in its history. To no one’s great surprise, Lower Merion school taxes doubled following the Republicans’ collapse – in a township in which nearly half of the children attend private schools. Today the township of 57,000 has nearly a half-billion dollars in municipal debt including its residents’ share of county obligations. Republicans had a good year in 2010 in the Philadelphia suburbs, in part because of national tea-party momentum but also because it was the first election in which it became excruciatingly obvious even to wealthy suburbanites that they were paying for more local government than they could afford.

Like 2010, 2012 is going to be an election about what we can afford. Economic stagnation is the headline issue, and the related question of burdensome government debt and incontinent government spending is much on Americans’ minds. That may not be enough to deliver Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney, but it ought to be enough to get him in the fight.

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