As Ohio Goes

5 minute read
Joe Klein

Carl Hughes is a banker in Marion, Ohio, the sort of guy who takes the pillar-of-the-community part of the program seriously. Last spring, he attended a meeting for people in town with health-insurance problems, called by Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland. “It was very emotional,” Hughes remembered, “very upsetting.” And so Hughes decided to pay for the insurance of the three families who seemed most desperate. “You want to see this problem fixed on the national level, but sometimes immediate action is needed,” Hughes told me during a Sunday-morning visit to a pancake house in Marion with Governor Strickland 10 days before the Ohio primary. Strickland is supporting Hillary Clinton, but Hughes is undecided–which, in Ohio, means that he’d like to vote for Barack Obama but needs to be convinced that Obama has the desire to understand, and act on, the layered complexity of the region’s despair.

In Ohio, even good news has dark shadows. The local Whirlpool plant employs about 4,000 people and produces 23,000 clothes dryers per day, but it’s nonunion. “It takes a while before you’re making $30,000 a year there,” Hughes told me. “Hard for us to give mortgages to people making so little.” But it’s not hard for predatory lenders. The mayor of Marion, Scott Schertzer, told me that “we’ve gone from 57 foreclosures 10 years ago to more than 500 last year.”

And Marion is in relatively good shape–compared with Mansfield, a town the governor and I visited earlier that morning. Strickland is a former minister, and we began our day at the United Methodist Church, a lovely place with a guitar-playing preacher. Back in the 1960s, Mansfield had been home to famous American brand names like Westinghouse and Tappan. Now the town was shriveling slowly, the young people moving away. “I’m the only one I know who went to a four-year college and came back home to live,” Ben Stauffer, a young high school teacher, told me later.

We have heard these stories before; we’ve heard them for decades, in fact. But there is a sense this year that the slow–motion depreciation of the American middle class has reached critical mass, and not just in Ohio and Michigan. It is an issue that reaches across party lines, which is why John McCain talks about the need to help displaced workers. “This income gap is the biggest issue for me,” Bob Currens, a Republican painting contractor who was thinking about voting Democratic–for Obama–for the first time, told me after the church service. His wife Kim joined us and said Bob had been a salaried worker at AK Steel, “and the union was a big problem there. They worked at not working.” Eventually there was a lockout–and AK Steel reorganized itself as a nonunion shop. “They’re making big profits now,” Bob said. “You wonder why there can’t be some middle ground” between the old-fashioned, inflexible unions and “the ceos selling out these companies, shipping jobs overseas.”

In a way, Bob and Kim Currens are the story of this election–not just the primary but also the general. “I have real problems with Hillary on abortion and the right to bear arms,” Bob said. But he’s likely to learn that Obama’s positions on those issues aren’t much different from Clinton’s. And what will he do then? In the recent past, people like the Currenses voted Republican–because of abortion or guns or bloody-shirt patriotism. This year they want a different conversation, about big things–the economy, America’s place in the world, their children’s future. This is not McCain’s favorite conversation; he’d much rather focus on his–deeply simplistic, as he presents it–view of the war in Iraq, the false nonchoices of “victory” or “surrender.”

It’s also not the election the mainstream media may want. We’ve “done” the Rust Belt stories. As I toured reality in Ohio, the big story in the press was whether the Clinton campaign was responsible for slipping a photo of Obama in Somali Muslim garb to the Drudge Report. No doubt we’re going to have a sludge tide of garbage about Obama’s provenance and proclivities in the months to come. If the election is dominated by that, we should all be sued for malpractice.

Still, if the Democrats want this election to be about national renewal, about big ideas like energy independence and a rollback of militarism abroad, they are going to have to be truthful and precise. They haven’t been on NAFTA, the relatively peripheral trade deal that both Clinton and Obama–formerly equivocal supporters–have made the symbol for the loss of manufacturing jobs. But shutting off free trade won’t heal Ohio. Aggressive government action might. That is real change on the horizon, the real choice this year.

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