‘What the !@#$ is going on in Ohio?” This blunt question, posed in a recent e-mail from an out-of-state friend, is on the minds of Republicans across the country.
Answers range from “The polling is cooked and the media are in the tank for Obama” to “Romney just isn’t very likable” or “Ohio’s relative success undermines attacks on the president’s economic record.”
Whatever truth there is to these explanations, I believe that something deeper is also involved: Many in Ohio desperately want to return to what Walter Russell Mead calls “the blue model.” Obama and his allies are willing to reinforce, and capitalize on, this mistaken longing, while Romney struggles to offer a compelling alternative vision.
For those unfamiliar with the term, Mead offers this succinct description:
In the old system, most blue-collar and white-collar workers held stable, lifetime jobs with defined benefit pensions, and a career civil service administered a growing state as living standards for all social classes steadily rose. Gaps between the classes remained fairly consistent in an industrial economy characterized by strong unions in stable, government-brokered arrangements with large corporations. . . . High school graduates were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that provided a comfortable lower middle-class lifestyle; college graduates could expect a better paid and equally secure future. An increasing “social dividend”, meanwhile, accrued in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks, more social and literal mobility, and more diverse forms of affordable entertainment. Call all this, taken together, the blue model.
Ohioans view this system with nostalgia: thriving manufacturing, Fortune 500 companies, and growing cities and schools. It’s a world that has largely slipped away.
In fact, Ohio has been an economic laggard for decades as jobs moved to the South and the West, in the chase for lower labor costs and less-onerous government (among other things). The first decade of this century hit it particularly hard.
From 2000 to 2010, Ohio lost over 600,000 private-sector jobs, and hundreds of thousands of Ohioans left the state. (In 2013, Ohio will have its fewest congressional representative since before the Civil War.) Productivity has increased manufacturing output as jobs have disappeared. Corporations with long histories in Ohio have left. Students educated at Ohio’s colleges and universities look elsewhere when planning their future.
While the blue model has largely disappeared from the private sector, and is increasingly untenable in the public sector, a great many Ohioans cling to it nonetheless. And there is a still-powerful political coalition determined to defend and even expand it.
Unions obviously have every incentive to do so. Government unions make up more than half of union membership and exercise great political clout. Ohio is in many ways their hill to die on. Witness the ferocity, and fundamental dishonesty, of last year’s Senate Bill 5 ( Issue 2) campaign.
So what does this have to do with Mitt Romney? Well, as John Ellis pointed out back in April, President Obama has doubled down on the blue model, and Romney has yet to offer an alternative.