Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Jon Tester's Memoir "Grounded" finally gets some national publicity, along with issues of rural alienation

I read U.S. Senator Jon Tester's memoir, Grounded:  A Senator's Lessons on Winning Back Rural America a few weeks ago and liked it very much, so much, in fact, that I'm planning to write a short review of it.  That's my copy of it in the photo above--with lots of Post-It notes marking notable passages.  My "Audible" e-audiobook version is even more heavily book-marked and annotated. 

With that in mind, I looked around for reviews of the book and was surprised that not few media outlets have said anything about it.  I found only this on NPR and this from the Los Angeles Review of Books, both from September, within days of the book's publication.  

Today, however, Tester and the ideas in his book are featured in the New York Times.  Jonathan Martin leads into his interview with Montana's Senior U.S. Senator with some details that the Senator talks about a lot in the book:  Donald Trump pulled out the stops in 2018 to prevent Tester's election to a third term.  Trump was furious that Tester, who has a leadership position in Veterans Affairs, opposed the nomination of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead the department.  And Trump, in Trump style, set out to see Tester defeated, flying to Montana to hold rallies for Tester's opponent.  Trump also deployed Don Jr., to Big Sky Country as his emissary, and Tester refers to the younger Trump repeatedly as the "greasy-haired kid."  Generally speaking, Tester doesn't pull any punches in the book, and his disdain is most evident regarding the two Donald Trumps.  

Tester prevailed anyway.  Since then, however, the fates of Democrats in Montana have taken a serious turn for the worse, as Martin explains:  

But last month Mr. Tester’s Republican colleague from Montana, Senator Steve Daines, rolled to re-election against a formidable and well-funded Democratic rival, Gov. Steve Bullock.

Why did Mr. Tester prevail while Mr. Bullock lost? 

I wrote recently about that shift in Montana politics here.  It's a shift documented, up to a point, in Tester's book, which was published a few months before we knew Daines would so handily beat Bullock.  

But the bigger question is the national one of course, and it's one Tester takes up in his book:  "Why do most Democrats keep faring so poorly in rural America?"

Martin says Tester's book is part memoir, part policy manifesto, but I found it lighter on policy than I expected.  Tester talks about things like schools, which you'd expect any rural politician to talk about, but that's not an area where the federal government plays a great role, though it could.  Tester also talks about infrastructure like roads, though I found his musings very general.

Here's a quote from Martin's interview with Tester, which is well worth a read in its entirety--as is the book.  

Martin:  How do you balance support for law enforcement with accountability for police officers who break the law?

Tester:  You approach it from a standpoint that we’re going to do our level best to make sure we have the best-trained folks that we can on the beat, whether you’re in Big Sandy, or Great Falls, or wherever you’re at in the state of Montana.

And I think the whole idea about defunding police is not just bad messaging, but just insane. And I’ll tell you why. The area where we have the greatest poverty in the state of Montana is Indian Country. And where do we need more police officers than anywhere else? Indian Country. I mean, that’s a fact. Because of poverty, crime is more prevalent. We need more police officers, not less.

Indeed, Tester pays a great deal of attention to Native American issues in the book.  He notes several times that 7% of Montana is Native American, and I count the persistence and nuance with which Tester handles indigenous issues one of the book's many strengths.    

Here's another quote from the interview, this one focused on Trump:  

Martin:  Is the issue for Democrats in rural areas the appeal of President Trump, or is this a longer-term structural problem for the party?

Tester:  There’s no doubt about it, he has an appeal in rural America. I can’t figure it out, but there’s no denying it.

But I will also tell you I think there’s a long-term structural issue. And by the way, I’ve had this conversation with Chuck Schumer [the Senate Democratic leader] several times — that we have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, “Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.” Because that’s what Trump has right now.

I can go into the list of things that might be insane about this president, but the truth is that rural people connect more with a millionaire from New York City than they do with the Democrats that are in national positions.

So that tells me our message is really, really flawed, because I certainly don’t see it that way.

We do not have a — what do I want to say — a well-designed way to get our message out utilizing our entire caucus. So we need to do more of that. You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people; it ain’t gonna sell. And quite frankly, I don’t know that you can have Jon Tester go talk to a bunch of rich people and tell them what they need to be doing.  (emphasis mine)

I'll also note that it's interesting that Martin is the journalist interviewing Tester for this story because Martin features in Tester's book.  Martin is the reporter who broke the story about plagiarism by Montana's short-term U.S. Senator, John Walsh, a Democrat appointed to finish out the term of Max Baucus when he became U.S. Ambassador to China.  After the revelation about plagiarism of Walsh's war college thesis, Walsh decided not to run for re-election, leaving a clearer path for Republican Steve Daines to take that seat in 2014.  Tester doesn't criticize Martin for exposing Walsh's plagiarism, but he does suggest that Martin should have disclosed that he was acting on opposition research about Walsh, research that (presumably Republican) outsiders furnished to him.   

Still hoping to write my own review of Grounded; certainly I have a lot more to say.

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