Attention, Wal-Mart Voters

Lost Jobs and Military Funerals Haunt Bush in the Heartland

Alongside the judgment that Bush is responsible for bringing home Americans in body bags persists the judgment that America's current foreign policy situation, all of it, just sort of happened to Bush, and that it's a damned fortunate thing this Iraq mess happened under his watch instead of under some hapless Democrat's. It is a testament to the Republicans' mastery at keeping people scared of all that is not Republican, then taking credit, as Republicans, for making them feel "secure." And it is a dynamic more evident the more Republican the milieu.

Drive 30 miles down the Rock River from Byron and you come to a very Republican place. Dixon advertises itself as the hometown of Ronald Reagan, another convenient fiction: Reagan didn't have a proper hometown because his father was a peripatetic drunk. But Reagan nostalgia is one of Dixon's major industries.

In Dixon, where two civil servants who admit not liking Bush beg for anonymity, you get an indelible lesson in the Republican politics of fear. Tasha Goral and Dion Day, 22 and 29, share a child (Raven Rose) and a home (candles, flowing scarves, no telephone, Coltrane on the stereo), and they are not married; all this in a town where the piety, in public at least, is especially fragrant. Tasha should know. Her father was the town bookie. He never got busted, though. "Hell, the cops all bet with him!" Dion laughs. "He paid everybody. Republicans, Democrats."

Illustration: David O'Keefe

Recently, a black friend of theirs, much more of a genuine hometown boy than Reagan ever was, graduated from Northwestern and came back to Dixon because that was where his heart was, where he wanted to make his contribution. He got a job at the local medium-security prison (one of the biggest industries in Ronald Reagan's hometown), kept his dreadlocks, drove a Cadillac. So two weeks ago, out of nowhere, he was pulled over by a convoy of law enforcement vehicles and spirited at gunpoint to his house, where 15 DEA agents, four IRS agents, two county sheriffs, and two state police officers searched his every belonging. "And you know what they found?" says Dion. "Nothing. Not a damned thing. They had a warrant. He doesn't know why anything happened. But he's supposedly some big drug kingpin." Now he's thinking about moving away, Dion says. He trails off. "It just makes us scared to be us. . . . "

Worry less. Intriguing cracks are opening in the Republican firmament. Take the factory owners I meet in the Rock River Valley's population center, the city of Rockford, who are ready to burn George Bush in effigy.

"I'm very conservative," Eric Anderberg of Dial Machine says, in the boardroom of the machine-parts factory his family built in 1966. "Always voted Republican. But I'm extremely concerned with what I hear from this current administration." Eric is 32, fiercely political, and articulate. He's called over two of his older industrial-park neighbors, Don Metz of Metz Tool and Judy Pike of Acme Grinding. Family manufacturers like these were the foundation of the modern conservative movement, reacting against the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower in the '50s. Now they are a wedge in the Republican coalition. I ask if they could imagine supporting, for president, a Democrat. Don Metz, who in his golf shirt looks like he just came back from a midday round, doesn't hesitate: "No problem. Somebody steps forward and says we're going to make manufacturing a priority in this country." They would even donate the legal maximum of $2,000.

The reason is economic near-devastation. Unemployment around here has increased by half in the last three years. In Rockford, it approaches 12 percent. Factories are closing as production is shipped off overseas. (The mantra of "high tech" is unlikely to impress Rockford; one of the most wrenching recent production shutdowns was at the plant that produced a motor for the Segway scooter.) "Service jobs" have replaced some of the work. But where they materialize, with rotten hours, pay, and benefits, they end up destroying families instead of saving them. And it makes these people livid, because it all seems so stupid and unavoidable.

It would sound like socialism if it weren't coming out of the mouths of Republicans. "The generation of people that are running corporations today," Eric explains, "all they give a damn about is what happens in the next 90 days to their stock price and when that window is going to be when they're going to jump out and pull that parachute—who cares what happens five years from now?" He's not talking about protectionism. He's talking about creating an economy that can survive the next generation. "Running a company based on shareholder wealth is a collapsible scheme! It's a short-term scheme! It's not a sustainable scheme."

Don offers an example: "What happened to the tax rebates? Everyone went to Wal-Mart and got a DVD that was made in China, which created no jobs. Thus: a jobless recovery."

He has mentioned a bogeyman. And now the conversation turns headlong.

Eric: "Wal-Mart and the rest, they love the way the trade situation is right now. They're forcing their suppliers to basically shut down and move overseas to produce."

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