An Election of Lesser Evils

7 minute read
Joe Klein

In the early afternoon of June 19, 2012, my third annual road trip collided with Mitt Romney’s presidential bus tour in the lovely little town of DeWitt, Mich. I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later we’d come across a full-fledged stump speech, and there was Romney, in front of Sweetie-licious Bakery Caf, saying, with utterly feigned surprise, “We came here to have some cherry pie and we find all these friends standing here,” as if his campaign hadn’t spent the last 24 hours blocking off Bridge Street and setting up loudspeakers and security posts. But I quibble: Romney was actually a lot better than when I last saw him during the Republican primaries. He had some new lines, like, Obama “promised hope and change, but now he’s hoping to change the subject” from the economy. Occasionally, he even hoisted himself to moments of semi-convincing passion. He said he was going to get the Keystone pipeline built, and here he started to yell, “if I have to build it myself!”

The afternoon was notable for another reason. After 19 days on the road, I finally found an unalloyed, enthusiastic Romney supporter. Her name was Penny Ancel. She had worked for Governor George Romney as a paralegal. “He was intense,” which was clearly a euphemism, “but there was never any question where he stood.” She supports young Romney “because I know the integrity and honesty he was raised with.” And she really didn’t like Barack Obama. Well, maybe her support was more of a father-to-son bank shot.

The polls are close in Ohio and Michigan. Both Romney and Obama have problems in the heartland, but Romney’s are more serious. People have mixed feelings about the President. Most are disappointed that he didn’t turn out to be Superman, but they credit him for trying hard and for being smart, honest and benign; others have legitimate policy beefs with the Obama Administration, especially environmental and regulatory complaints in the coal country of southeastern Ohio; and then there are some who see him as the devil incarnate. Romney, on the other hand, inspires very little passion one way or the other. Midwestern businessmen tend to trust him for that reason, but most of his other supporters simply see him as the lesser of two evils, at best.

“Romney smells like money to me,” said Janice Jarvis, an Ohio Republican whose family was in the process of tumbling out of the middle class. I met her as she stocked up at a food pantry in Newcomerstown. Her husband had taken a 60% reduction in salary at General Electric; her son and daughter-in-law had moved back home, jobless (although her son was just starting work on a garbage truck). “But I guess I have to vote for him.” Why? I asked. “Because I think Obama is hiding the truth about his past. I think he’s a Muslim and he’s trying to destroy America. One day the truth will come out.”

Most of Romney’s supporters were less melodramatic, but they had one thing in common: their vote for Romney was primarily a vote against Obama. And more than a few who might vote for Romney have been spooked by the Republican Party’s social extremism. “I’m the guy the Republicans should be most worried about,” said Joe Messina, a geography professor at Michigan State University. “I’m a veteran. I’m a libertarian conservative. I’m not at all pleased with Obama. But I think the Republican position on science is indefensible. At this point, I just don’t know who I’m going to vote for.”

Even more troubling for Romney was the reaction of a small group of first responders in Brighton, a central Michigan town located between Detroit and Lansing. I’d met with these police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers two years ago, and they’d been in despair. Most of them were Republicans. All of them had voted for Rick Snyder, a Romney-style businessman, for governor in 2010, and for a Republican state legislature. “Boy, was that a mistake,” said Kevin Gentry, a deputy fire chief and an adjunct law professor at Michigan State. “We’ve got huge economic problems here and what do they do? They spend all their time on social issues.” Others jumped in: the Republicans were trying to regulate abortion clinics out of business, trying to limit research on stem cells at the University of Michigan, fighting over a “no helmet” law for motorcycle riders, kicking a legislator who used the word vagina off the floor of the state legislature. “I think this is going to splash over onto Romney,” Gentry said. “I can’t vote for [him]. He’s running on the same thing that Snyder did–he’s a businessman, but he has a conservative social agenda. And we’ve seen what comes first when they get in office,” although Romney never even mentioned social issues in DeWitt. “And his opposing the auto bailout was really stupid in Michigan.”

The auto bailout is a big deal in this part of the country. It is that rarest of stories in these complicated times, a government program that actually worked. Ohio’s Democratic Senator, Sherrod Brown, who is up for re-election this year, loves to sing the praises of the Chevy Cruze, which is made at Lordstown–where the factory, which was nearly idle three years ago, is now working triple shifts. “It’s an Ohio car!” Brown said in his gravelly, unpretentious voice. “Assembled in Lordstown. The engine is made in Defiance. Transmission in Toledo. Steel in Toledo. Aluminum in Cleveland.” He went all the way to the seat covers and sound system–all made in Ohio. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see an “Ohio car” ad emanating from either the Brown or the Obama campaign in the weeks to come.)

Ohio Governor John Kasich told me the auto bailout hadn’t added all that many new jobs. The auto companies were consolidating workers, closing down old plants and moving them to places like Lordstown, he said. Ohio’s economy is growing, Kasich claimed, because he had been aggressive in luring medical, insurance and banking jobs to the state. Kasich was right, but also wrong: Ohio’s economy would have collapsed but for the bailout. There were innumerable jobs in auto-parts manufacturing companies, and the stores and saloons that serve those factories, that simply wouldn’t exist now if the bailout hadn’t occurred. Tax revenue would have plummeted, which would have made it impossible for Kasich to balance the budget and cut taxes.

The public reaction to the auto bailout in Ohio and Michigan should be instructive to both Romney and Obama. You could argue that the federal bank bailout accomplished many of the same results on the national level–it prevented an economic collapse. But people don’t see it that way. “That bank bailout only helped the bankers line their pockets,” said Katie Bunkers, a nurse in Toledo. “At least we got something out of the auto bailout.” And that is where the challenge lies for Obama and the Democrats in general. It’s been a long time since middle-class Americans saw government act on their behalf. They suspect it does most of its business with the rich and poor. That isn’t true, of course. But those, like the President, who favor government action to solve our problems have to explain to people like Katie Bunkers, in the clearest possible terms, how ginormous, complicated pieces of legislation like economic stimulus and financial reform will benefit them.

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