In D.C., Blue Collar Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

According to Washington, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan have the "blue collar appeal" and "working class roots" that Mitt Romney and President Obama lack. But in reality, all of these men have only the faintest ties to blue-collar work -- you know, manual labor in factories or mines or construction sites.

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According to Washington, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan have the "blue collar appeal" and "working class roots" that Mitt Romney and President Obama lack. But in reality, all of these men have only the faintest ties to blue-collar work -- you know, manual labor in factories or mines or construction sites. They are both a rich person's idea of a poor person.

Merriam Webster's defines blue-collar labor as "of, relating to, or constituting the class of wage earners whose duties call for the wearing of work clothes or protective clothing." But the Washington definition of blue-collar is different. From an analysis of punditry, the qualities that define blue collar are being white, being male, being religious -- especially Catholic -- being from the interior, and having mainstream cultural interests totally unrelated to social class, such as "liking hockey" or "liking 1970s rock music."

When John Boehner became Speaker of the House, we heard frequently of his blue-collar background, defined as having a job in college and parents without bachelor's degrees. (Boehner's dad owned a small business -- a bar.) Tim Pawlenty is "the hockey-playing son of a blue-collar worker." (Pawlenty's father drove a milk truck, and his son went on to earn a J.D.) The most ridiculous "blue-collar" person this year was Rick Santorum, who is actually a generation further away from manual labor than Mitt Romney. Santorum has a bachelor's, an MBA, and a J.D. He was a lobbyist. His father was a psychiaitrist for the Veterans Administration. His mom was an administrative nurse. They have retired to a wealthy Florida neighborhood. Nevertheless, in August, The Hill reported, "Rick Santorum will take his everyman, working class, blue collar, rootsy, scrappy, Harry Truman-appeal to Ohio today to campaign for Mitt Romney."

Let's compare the blue-collar stats of America's top two Regular Guys on the national tickets.

Blue-Collar Pol: Joe Biden

Actual Blue-Collar Credentials: "My dad never wore a blue collar," Biden said in June. "Barack makes me sound like I just climbed out of a mine in Scranton, Pennsylvania carrying a lunch bucket. No one in my family worked in a factory."

Washington Blue-Collar Credentials: Biden was born in Scranton. This is a really big deal, because Scranton is in the Rust Belt. Saturday Night Live parodied this in 2008, having a fake Biden say in a fake vice-presidential debate, "You'll see, it's a hell hole. An absolute jerkwater of a town. You couldn't stand to spend a weekend there." Biden's family is Catholic, which meant working-class in the era when WASPs controlled everything. Biden's father felt economic hardship -- but only after having been rich enough in his 20s to sail yachts and fly planes. The Bidens eventually were middle class again when his dad moved to Delaware and sold used cars. "The Bidens scraped together the tuition for Joe Jr. and his brothers to attend the prestigious Archmere Academy," The New York Times reported in 2008. Stretching ends to pay for a fancy prep school may be a sign of parental devotion and sacrifice for their children's future, but it is not an example of humbling financial distress. A good many of the parents paying for their kids to go to Sidwell Friends are "blue collar" by this definition.

Blue-Collaryness Rating: Worn Chambray. "This campaign, Biden — with his blue collar background — is focusing on helping Obama where the president tends to be weak: in appealing to blue collar and swing state voters," the Associated Press reported Friday. "One of the weapons used by Obama to court white men is Vice President Joe Biden, who has a kinship with blue-collar voters, particularly in critical battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan," The Dallas Morning News said Thursday.

Blue-Collar Pol: Paul Ryan

Actual Blue-Collar Credentials: As The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza explained last month:

"Janesville, Wisconsin, where Ryan was born and still lives, is a riverfront city of sixty-four thousand people... Three families, the Ryans, the Fitzgeralds, and the Cullens, sometimes called the Irish Mafia, helped develop the town, especially in the postwar era. The Ryans were major road builders, and today Ryan, Inc., started in 1884 by Paul’s great-grandfather, is a national construction firm. The historic Courthouse section of Janesville is still thick with members of the Ryan clan. At last count, there were eight other Ryan households within a six-block radius of his house, a large Georgian Revival with six bedrooms and eight bathrooms that is on the National Register of Historic Places."

Washington Blue-Collar Credentials: Ryan is Catholic, and from a state where there are farms. Ryan likes Led Zeppelin, which is somehow blue collar despite inspiring countless blacklight posters in dorms nationwide. He has other hobbies that require equipment you buy in malls. "I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting," Ryan said on August 12. "I got a new chainsaw... It was nice. It's a Stihl." Homeowner Stihl chainsaws run between $179.95 and $359.95 at the local Janesville Stihl dealer. "He is very grounded in roots that weren't so glamorous coming up in life," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told PBS before the Republican National Convention.  "And the American people will hear his story tonight, hear how he lost his father and had to work hard and assume hourly wage jobs when he was young." Yes, friends, Ryan's Dickinsian youth involved a part-time job at McDonalds. (In fairness, it does not appear that anyone in Washington has ever claimed Eric Cantor has "blue collar appeal.")

Blue-Collaryness Rating: Distressed Denim. Romney "is counting on Ryan’s blue-collar appeal to attract the state’s working-class voters as well as a surprisingly large number of evangelicals," The New York Daily News said. "I haven't seen too many people as good as Paul Ryan. Blue-collar guy. Lots of crossover appeal. He's a normal guy. That shows when you see him on the campaign trail." Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who lost the Republican Senate primary in his state, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel"If Paul Ryan brings anything to the GOP ticket, winning over white working-class voters in the Midwest and elsewhere could make the most difference," Investor's Business Daily says.

So look forward to the vice-presidential debate as a fake blue-collar face-off. "But the contest is also a deeper one, because both men were chosen as running mates in part for cultural reasons, namely their appeal to white working-class voters: Mr. Biden, the son of blue-collar Scranton, Pa., and Mr. Ryan, of Janesville, Wis., a manufacturing city that has suffered from the kind of plant closings that have afflicted the Rust Belt," The New York Times said.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.