A couple of years ago some of us took Merle Haggard's rejection of the Bush Administration and the Iraq war as a sign that disaster was imminent for the GOP. A new country hit doesn't spell the same kind of doom for Obama and the Democrats - yet - but it reveals a vulnerability that they'd be foolish to ignore.
Country singer John Rich helped change the sound of country music as half of the duo "Big and Rich" ("Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy") and as part of the "Muzik Mafia" production team. He and his partners modernized country's soundwith hip-hop and modern rock textures while staying true to its rural roots. John Rich isn't the icon that Merle is, although he's a huge star in country circles. Nor is he an unpredictable "antipartisan" like the Hag. In fact, Rich is a committed Republican activist. While his "Raising McCain" theme song didn't exactly turn the tide for his candidate last year, he's found his voice now. Democrats should sit up and take notice.
"Shuttin' Detroit Down" is a strong tune with emotional appeal and a blunt message: "While they're livin' it up on Wall Street in that New York City town/here in the real world they're shutting Detroit down." The lyrics evoke images of homeless farmers and retired auto workers whose pensions plans are slashed "while the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on out of town."
"I see all these big shots whining on my evening news,
About how they're losing billions and it's up to me and you
To come running to the rescue.
Well pardon me if I don't shed a tear.
their selling make believe and we don't buy that here."
Is the song playing on the same "us-vs-them" regional loyalties that Sarah Palin tried to tap in the last election? Absolutely. In the song's world, "DC" and "New York" are places of privilege while Detroit and the rest of the country are "real." But where Gov. Palin sounded strident and unsympathetic, John Rich comes across as warm and empathetic.
Why should the President and Congress take note of a hit country song? Because music can be a glimpse into the national psyche, even in this age of prefabricated pop and country. Because music can reshape the national psyche, by taking powerful emotions and channeling them for or against political parties. And because the Administration has been sounding a series of wrong notes where the bailout and the stimulus plan are concerned.
There are three ways the Administration's economic rescue plan could have been designed and presented, after all: as helping the economy, as aiding major financial institutions, or as helping bankers themselves. While the first would have been ideal, the Administration chose to target institutional bailouts rather than consumer rescue. And their reluctance to fire Wall Street executives, even after giving GM's chief the heave-ho, gives added weight to the perception that DC loves Wall Street fatcats.
It didn't help that agreements with AIG Financial executives were deemed sacrosanct by Geither and Co. even after union workers were forced to amend their contracts. Democrats might be frustrated by the idea that Republicans could benefit from the resulting frustration. After all, many GOP leaders spread anti-union misinformation in order to encourage the "shuttin' down" of Detroit. That led unlikely populist Dick Cheney to warn Republicans against becoming the Herbert Hoover Party.) But it's happened before.
So when John Rich argues that "they're bailing out them bankers," the Administration hasn't made it easy to argue with him. Maybe that's why he was able to recruit Mickey Rourke and notorious country music leftist Kris Kristofferson - bless his soul, that can't be easy - to act in the song's offical vide.
"Shuttin' Detroit Down" winds up sounding like a mash-up of "Okie From Muskogee" and "Roger and Me." Here's a idea for the next bailout song: In our world, the American worker is a hero who's "too big to fail."
Ladies and gentlemen: In this corner, Mickey Rourke and Kris Kristofferson. In that corner, Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers (with his hundreds of thousands in speaking fees to Wall Street firms). Who do you think is going to win that bout?
Some of us keep waiting for the President and his team to summon their legendary communications skills and do a better job of selling their plan. We're still waiting. Overconfidence would be a grave mistake on their part. Sure, the President's approval numbers are still high - but not dazzlingly so when compared to other Presidents at this point in their terms.
"Shuttin' Detroit Down" gives voice to the growing perception that the Admininstration's plans favor wealthy investors over Mr. and Ms. Main Street America. The song points the way toward what could be called Rehab for Republicans. They've won elections before by posing as the party of the people with "calloused hands" who, per John Rich, "can't afford to die." They could do it again.
Democrats celebrated when President Obama won Indiana last year. "Shuttin' Detroit Down" is the opening shot in the next battle for Indiana, and all the other places just like it. The Democrats needs to show that they can win there again - and that they deserve to win there.
(originally written for The Huffington Post)