Consider their bases of support. Sanders performed well in Iowa and is expected to win New Hampshire, in part because their populations are overwhelmingly white. Sanders is nearly tied with Clinton among white voters nationally, 45 percent to 43 percent, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Clinton, meanwhile, trounces Sanders in African-American support: 86 percent of African-Americans view Clinton favorably, versus 43 percent for Sanders. More than half of the Democratic electorate in the next primary, South Carolina, is black. No wonder Clinton leads Sanders in the state by more than 30 points.
Clinton needs that firewall of African-Americans voters if she’s going to fend off Sanders’ surge. A clean water campaign — one that elevates the inequities that make African-Americans twice as likely to rely on substandard plumbing as non-Hispanic whites — helps her do that. But her clean water campaign isn’t just a narrow primary tactic to edge out Sanders. Flint is also a prime example of what happens when the government, on all levels, fails to do its job.
Unlike climate change, polluted drinking water is a simple issue Americans can readily understand — and one that tops Americans’ concerns about the environment. Fifty-five percent say they worry a “great deal” about it, per a 2015 Gallup poll, while less than a majority worry a great deal about other environmental threats.
They’re right to worry, as poor infrastructure investment, patchy oversight, and cost-cutting are rampant in communities across America. To save money, Michigan officials switched from purchasing water from Lake Huron via Detroit to sourcing water from the Flint River, but failed to treat the water properly, causing corrosion of Flint’s lead pipes. Compounding the problems, state officials and federal regulators denied there was a problem until last fall, when it was too late.
For Clinton, Flint is an opportunity to convince voters that good government can and should address top problems like economic and social inequality — and it’s a case study for how Republicans’ zeal for austerity hurts the most vulnerable Americans. Clinton only has to point to any of her nine GOP opponents’ plans for handicapping the Environmental Protection Agency to show how a Republican presidency is dangerous to public health (it also helps her case that Snyder is a Republican).
Republican presidential candidates have done their best to avoid a thorough examination of what went wrong in Flint, perhaps because it would undermine their arguments for less federal oversight and investment. But whoever wins the GOP nomination will have to formulate a response eventually, because Clinton has hinted at how she’ll connect Flint to her presidential platform.
“Environmental justice can’t just be a slogan — it has to be a central goal,” she wrote in an op-ed last weekend for MSNBC. “Cities are full of lead paint in low-income housing, lead embedded in the very soil from the days of leaded gasoline. Already, African-American children are twice as likely to suffer from asthma as white children — and climate change will put vulnerable populations at even greater risk.”
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