‘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.
The General Motors bailout, for example, allowed Obama to rescue the unions at the expense of taxpayers and non-union workers. But he has campaigned as if the bailout single-handedly saved the entire auto industry and Ohio’s economy.
In contrast, the GOP has had a hard time offering a compelling picture of what a post-blue-model world looks like. What happens when GM is allowed to fail? Not the destruction of the auto industry but its reformation into something more competitive and flexible. The GOP has waffled on the issue, and polls show the Democrats have largely won on it.
The intense focus on China is another example of this contrast in visions. Free trade is largely a political loser in Ohio. Most voters simply refuse to believe that productivity and union inflexibility have more to do with jobs leaving the state than does China. So Romney talks tough and seeks to blame Obama for unfair trade practices. This may be the optimal strategy in the short term, but it reinforces the blue model rather than helps voters to see the future.
And conservative politicians and activists are not necessarily any better in this regard. Many are still focused on mantras about “lower taxes” and “smaller government,” as if the very words could magically win elections.
Promises about smaller government don’t directly address the fears of voters worried about their economic future in a fast-paced, high-tech, globalized economy. If voters believe that teachers, cops, and firefighters form the foundation of the middle class, then neither smaller government nor tax cuts will automatically appeal to them. In fact, many have repeatedly chosen higher taxes in response to proposed cuts to schools and public safety.
It isn’t that Romney and conservatives should defend bloated government or high taxes. Rather, we must address voters’ real fears. We must explain to them not only that the blue model is dying, and that propping it up prolongs and deepens the pain, but that a dynamic, decentralized, and free-market-driven economy will mean a better life for their families, their businesses, and their communities.
Republicans must convince voters that the president is unwilling to tell them the truth: that his policies reward political allies and contributors while undermining prosperity, and that Obama is moving the country not forward but backward — backward to a system that can no longer work.
Far too many Ohioans are tempted to keep muddling along rather than embrace this new landscape.
Romney has the opportunity to inspire them to embrace genuine change. He can convince Ohioans that he understands the economy as it exists and that, instead of doubling down on debt and stagnation, he has a plan to align America with economic reality in a way that releases innovation and prosperity.
— Kevin Holtsberry is a freelance writer and consultant living in Columbus, Ohio.