Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave the most memorably stupid speech at the Democratic convention. He savaged Mitt Romney as a plutocrat eager to dispossess the American worker and unloosed the groan-inducing line: “If Mitt was Santa Claus, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.”
He forgot to mention that Romney would deny Mrs. Claus equal pay. Strickland’s content? Indefensible. His tone? Rancid. His political instincts? Shrewd. If President Barack Obama wins Ohio and a second term, he will have Ted Strickland’s message to thank.
Strickland lost in his 2010 re-election bid to John Kasich, but not for a lack of witless populism. As governor of a state with over 9 percent unemployment, Strickland knew the formula that President Obama came to appreciate: If you can’t defend your record, trash the other guy as a cartoonish corporate stooge.
Kasich had a stint at the now-defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers, so Strickland called him “Wall Street to the core.” He accused Kasich of trying to privatize Social Security as a congressman to serve Lehman’s interests, then getting rewarded with a job. “I didn’t learn my values from modern-day robber barons,” Strickland boasted.
Not subtle, but not ineffective. Strickland outperformed Democrats nationally among white working-class voters. In a smart analysis at the time for The New Republic, Noam Scheiber praised the political potential of this “aggressive populism,” while warning it “can be crude, ugly, and conspiratorial.”
That pretty much encapsulates the Obama campaign’s economic case to the heartland, which is pure Stricklandism with a big dollop of the auto bailouts.
The “economic patriotism” the governor bellowed about at the convention is on the cover of the pamphlet outlining the president’s purported second-term agenda. An Obama super PAC ad accusing Bain Capital of shipping jobs to China is titled, unbelievably, “Mitt Romney: Economic Traitor.” An ad from the Obama campaign itself concludes that Romney is “not one of us.”
If there were academics who devoted their lives to ferreting out bias against wealthy white men, this would be called the “othering” of Mitt Romney. If the president were a Republican, the press would faint over his “economic McCarthyism.” The world being what it is, Democrats can call Romney the economic equivalent of the Rosenbergs and no one minds.
At the very least, all of this has put Obama in a stronger position than he would have been otherwise in the heavily working-class electoral keystone of Ohio. In the end, the auto bailout may prove more potent for the Democrats than Medicare. Romney pushed back hard on the Medicare attacks throughout the campaign, but less so on the bailouts. Unanswered demagoguery is usually successful demagoguery.
The Obama campaign throws the headline of a 2008 op-ed Romney wrote for The New York Times back at him: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Yet Romney’s point was unassailable: If the auto companies had gotten bailed out without the restructuring of bankruptcy, it would have been a disaster for the taxpayers and the companies. Romney was willing to provide government financing, but only in the context of a traditional bankruptcy proceeding, in contrast to the politicized bankruptcy process that prevailed.
The Romney campaign is now litigating the bailouts in Ted Strickland terms. A new ad points out that Chrysler, supposedly a crown jewel of patriotic economic policy, was handed over to the Italians, in the form of Fiat. It then darkly mentions that Jeep is beginning to manufacture in China.
The New York Times tsk-tsked that the ad left “the misleading impression that the move would come at the expense of jobs here.” Which is true enough, and could as easily be said of the entire concept of “economic patriotism.” It doesn’t matter to those Chrysler employees that they work for an Italian company that is going to build Jeeps in China for the Chinese market. They have jobs, and the company will be presumably be stronger for its foray into China.
“Economic patriotism” is neither good economics nor good patriotism.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.