Pennsylvania Again – German Style

What is it with Pennsylvania? It truly must be the “swing state” conventional wisdom describes it as being since, in addition to the on-the-scene report for the Netherland’s leading general daily that I covered in my last entry, now Caroline König of the prestigious German commentary newspaper Die Zeit has bee-lined to the Keystone State to report on the pre-election atmosphere there (The Battlefield). Apparently it’s quite frenetic.

(Long-time €S readers will by now be familiar with my idiosyncrasies and so hopefully also willing to indulge them. I don’t just mean parenthetical second paragraphs; actually, what I originally wanted to bring up was a certain obsession with foreign names. König, many of you will know, is German for “king,” but no, for some reason Frau König did not stop at King-of-Prussia, not at least that she wrote about.)

Yes, it’s to be Pennsylvania again, even as König’s lead-sentence recites the “old saying” that any presidential candidate that wins two out of three of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida will win the presidency. Florida would be more fun to visit in October, with a better climate; perhaps that very fact raises suspicions among managing editors who have to approve submitted travel-budgets. Or maybe its infamous history from the last presidential election – and, unfortunately, the seeming likelihood of that sort of thing happening there again this time – put it into a category all its own. But why not Ohio, then? OK, so the NRC Handelsblad and Die Zeit don’t regularly coordinate their plans . . .


In any case, at least this article has nothing to do with Hershey. Rather, König mainly covers Wilkes-Barre and the state capital, Harrisburg, but also even some Philly. “At the universities,” she writes,” there reigns a state of emergency [Ausnahmezustand] as the election approaches. She quotes a certain Jessica (no last name given), a student at the University of Pennsylvania and head of the campus Democrats: “I’ll finally be able to get a good night’s sleep on 3 November.” And yes, from the role she has undertaken you could understand how things would be particularly hectic for her these days, as they would be for her counterpart, “Kristina,” head of the college Republicans. Still, it seems to go beyond just these two, as evinced by the on-campus debate staged between them, which seems to have gotten a bit out of hand. “They swiped our Bush papier-mâché figure!” Kristina complains.

König starts at the academic level – she even mentions the simulated presidential election run as an educational exercise by 50 state high schools – but then proceeds up to the operatives who are battling here for real. We meet Chris Nicolas, political director for Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who describes Pennsylvania as a “doughnut-land” for his party: “Nothing in the middle but everywhere all around our dough,” i.e. traditionally Democratic voters (labor, minorities) in the cities, but plenty of Republican voters inhabiting the suburbs. We also meet “Michael” (again no last name), who coordinates voter-registration volunteers for Kerry around Harrisburg. “Everything is more intensive than in 2000,” (when Gore won the state) he says, but things are looking good: 90% of the many newly-registered voters register as Democrats, and the mood is even “euphoric” among his volunteers, some who have come here from as far away as California.


There is also mentioned a Democratic operative of a different sort, namely a certain David Fillman, who is director for the Harrisburg area of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME stands behind Kerry, but that’s no surprise: organized labor generally votes Democratic. Or at least organized labor organizations generally endorse Democratic; as Fillman ruefully points out, history has moved on far past the point when being the member of a union meant that you automatically voted Democratic. Indeed, the article claims that half of union members are Republican. (König seems to write this in such a way as to imply that this is true generally, i.e. nation-wide, but ultimately it’s unclear what she means.) The same applies to Catholic voters. Apparently there’s a Democratic weakness when it comes to “ethical issues” (listed as right to bear arms, abortion, the death penalty), so that the AFSCME strategy is to avoid such issues altogether and instead urge a vote for Kerry by bringing up only those economic issues directly relevant to these voters as workers.

König first lists Waffenbesitz – “weapons possession,” or the supposed 2nd Amendment right to bear arms – among these “ethical issues.” She won’t write it explicitly, but you have got to know that, from a German perspective, she is bemused: if “weapons possession” is an ethical issue in Germany, it’s from the opposite direction, i.e. that the ethical thing is not to allow people other than the public security authorities to own guns at all! And you’d find a similarly polar-opposite position from her on the death penalty, and also probably on abortion. Anyway, there’s no need to go into detail here; she can be sure that a mere listing of these “ethical” subjects will recall to the minds of her German readers how sometimes American and European civilizations don’t seem to have that much in common at all. This carries through to the image with which she crowns the end of her article, that of Bill Clinton, framed and prominently placed in the office of AFSCME’s Fillman. “Clinton – that was our hero! Thank you, President Clinton,” Fillman is willing to declare to König for the record. And with this there would be widespread agreement among Die Zeit’s audience – but you just wonder this time whether Frau König realizes that many Americans feel rather differently about the man (not to mention his wife).

In any case, that “battlefield” in König’s title is there not just as a synonym for “swing state,” but also in the sense tending more towards the literal meaning of “struggle” (although hopefully not going all the way to blood-letting). Both political camps are “grimly determined” that their man will prevail, she writes. Thank Heaven that tension only has about a week more to go – or, we can hope, at least until late November or early December when all the lawsuits have been finally sorted out.

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