Cover Story
Vergil Cabasco

'Holes in our national trust'

Campaign 2010 | As disappointment with government grows, once-safe Democratic seats turn precarious in the campaign's final days

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

LEWISTON, Idaho; OLYMPIA, Wash.; SEATTLE and SOUTH DAKOTA-When people plan coast-to-coast trips, it's usually to visit the nation's sights. But my recent trek from Washington, D.C., to Washington state for WORLD was more about seeing our nation's people.

I met a diverse America during my zigzagging, 4,225 mile, 10-day drive: doctors and engineers; Rotary club presidents and pastors; bankers and accountants; educators and real estate agents; owners of sheet metal plants, funeral homes, and restaurants. Still I could not resist one sightseeing detour: Mount Rushmore.

I was not alone in being drawn to this South Dakota landmark. Thousands of bikers, decked out in every manner of patriotic garb from red, white, and blue bandanas to American flag tattoos, had come to pay their respects on their way to one of the nation's biggest motorcycle rallies.

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Mount Rushmore's granite-sculptured rendering of four of the nation's most recognizable faces offers an irresistible place for reflection. And the roar of hundreds of revved-up Harley-Davidsons didn't quiet the riders: They were eager to unleash their frustrations over the country's political present. "Those are our fathers, and we've lost it," said David Simmons, 60, of Vancouver, Wash., pointing at the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. "It almost makes you sad, to tell you the truth. You think about our forefathers and what they did to get us here. We are now going the other way."

This disappointment echoed comments I heard thousands of miles earlier in Dover, Ohio. There Charles Deeds, 76, told me that the government has "created some holes in our national trust." Politicians and citizens no longer "understand what makes America different. Maybe it is a result of too much success."

They also foreshadowed what I would hear at my next stop in Montana. Charles McMurrey, who works for a nonprofit community development project in Billings, bemoaned the loss of the American dream that says hard work pays off: "It's what sets America apart. If we are looking at government for the answers, it is just an expensive band-aid. It is taking us down a path we can't recover from."

Those opinions came from a Democrat, a Republican, and an independent. They may reflect a diversity of political ideology, but they show a unity of belief that the nation is going in the wrong direction.

Throughout my trek across the United States, I heard the same thing-concerns about spending and living beyond our means, too much government, and not enough common sense. This is the voter mindset confronting current and aspiring politicians everywhere during their final campaign lap. In a few short weeks all the volatile ingredients of this election season-tea parties, Obamacare, federal bailouts, chronic joblessness, federal debt-will come together at the voting booth. The final two stops of my American journey show why this season, perhaps like any other midterm election in memory, is engaging new kinds of candidates, and old voters in new ways.

The last time Bobby Fuller got involved in politics he was running for president of the ninth grade.

Fuller, 39, has spent the past decade as a parole officer in the juvenile justice system. Reforming wayward youth didn't leave Fuller with enough energy to follow the latest legislative debate. "I'd rather watch shark week than CNN," he admitted.

But last March, Fuller, yearning for the freedom of being his own boss, poured $200,000 of his retirement savings into buying and remodeling the Cedars Inn in downtown Lewiston, Idaho. Fulfilling this dream has forced Fuller to look at how the decisions being made at a Congress located more than 2,500 miles away could affect his 62-room hotel.

He is already learning how federal regulations can be as difficult to understand as a teenager in detention. Fuller hired a staff of six and has plans to hire more workers and buy another hotel. But Fuller is having trouble securing a bank loan. Reluctant banks navigating their own tighter regulations are stonewalling small businesses like his.

"To be honest, the people it's hurting the most are those looking for jobs," Fuller said. "At least two times a day I have someone coming in looking for work. It is not like I want the money to build a pool in my backyard."

Fuller's lesson in government's reach has led him to join the local Chamber of Commerce. One suspects his political education is just beginning: "There is so much stuff going on. It is overwhelming. I don't know what to keep track of, what to listen to, what's true, what's false, what to get involved with. You don't know who these people are making these decisions."

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