By Luke Popovich
This picture was worth a thousand words. An Associated Press photo showed Hillary Clinton being confronted during a West Virginia campaign stop by unemployed coal miner Bo Copley and his wife, holding a picture of their young daughters. Copley, tearful and choked up, managed to ask the presumptive heir to President Barack Obama’s anticoal policies, how “you can come in here and tell us you’re going to be our friend” after promising CNN two weeks earlier that she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business?”
The pained smile on Clinton’s face said “good question.” Think of a defendant stumped under cross examination by an irrefutable piece of evidence. But her answer said much more than her views on coal mining.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, “other than what I said was totally out of context for what I meant.” What was this context from which her meaning was wrongly plucked? “It didn’t mean that we were going to do it,” she said. “What we said is that [it] is going to happen unless we take action to help and prevent it.”
That’s not what the 39-year-old registered Republican Copley heard, nor was it what I heard. What I suspect we heard was the logical conclusion of the “context” she herself spelled out weeks earlier when she confirmed to a group of enviro nongovernmental agencies that the goal of the Obama administration is “to keep coal in the ground” and that her administration would strive to do the same thing (see chart).
So, promising a $30 billion aid package for coalfields ravaged in part by the very policy she supports is farcical. It recalled that notorious Vietnam era epitaph for a Viet Cong hamlet flattened by GIs: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Appalachia might not need an aid package if coalfields hadn’t been flooded with policies designed to drown its high-wage employer.
Donald Trump gleefully pounced on her awkward retraction during his eulogy for the Cruz campaign after eviscerating him in Indiana. He would keep coal jobs, Trump promised. How he would do so was left unsaid.
Two things to take away from this last tango in Appalachia.
First, coal is back. Both candidates acknowledged, albeit in different ways, that coal is too vital a resource to dismiss — for its economic importance and implicitly for its political importance. This will come as a news flash to coal’s critics. We don’t need coal’s fuel or its jobs, they say. “Don’t worry about coal as a political force, it’s so yesterday,” goes this mantra.
It’s now plain why this conventional wisdom is so wrong. It’s because coal’s critics — in the administration, the major media, in the affluent green congregation worshiping at the altar of climate change — all avert their eyes from coal communities and industries they support. Ignore them, the blue collar workers, their families, and the low-income households relying on affordable electricity and, of course, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” seems painless. That way you don’t feel the pain from those who do.
This leads to the second, larger point underscored by the campaign’s coal kerfuffle: It dramatizes how far both parties have drifted from their historical, traditional moorings. The GOP standard bearer, a brass knuckled business tycoon from silk-stocking Manhattan, supports miners. His Democratic rival, a woman representing the party that supposedly defends blue collar workers — a Midwesterner who built her legal career in Bill’s Ozarks — sides with the affluent climate class.
No wonder more of us say we no longer understand this country; we just live here.
Luke Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.