Forced Perspective

Perspective is good, and Denison University – a quiet campus on a hill above a quiet little town in the dead center of Ohio – wasn’t a bad place to spend four years in the late sixties. The school was first-rate and you could watch the chaos of the times unfold from a safe distance. Things happened elsewhere. You could think about them. September 1965 – freshman year began and the Vietnam War was heating up and the provisions of the Civil Rights acts that had been passed the previous year were kicking in. Things were happening, but by 1968 Bobby and Martin had been shot dead and there were those riots at the Democrat convention in Chicago, and the students had taken over Paris and the Soviet tanks had rolled in Prague ending hope there – and the Summer of Love in San Francisco was long over and Woodstock was to come. But none of that happened in Ohio. And there was June 1969 – graduation. By then Nixon was president, and that month the National Convention of the Students for a Democratic Society, meeting in Chicago of all places, collapsed. The Weatherman crowd took over, but by then there was nothing much left to take over. That same month there were the now famous Stonewall riots – the gay rights movement began. But it began in New York City, not Ohio. The only thing that happened in Ohio that month was the Cuyahoga River catching fire, again – and graduation. We all moved on. We had lived through momentous times, elsewhere – and maybe that’s the best way to live through momentous times. When you’re not a participant, with an axe to grind one way or the other, you can see things more clearly. Or you can ignore them, which seems to be the default position of those who remained in Ohio. It’s a complacent place and they like it that way. In the middle of the state there’s Columbus – made famous by that Philip Roth novella Goodbye, Columbus – all about complacency, and parochialism, and materialism, and about escaping all that. There are two views of the matter.

That is not to say nothing ever happens in Ohio, as much as folks there would like that to be so. There’s their current governor John Kasich – the former Ohio congressman of many a term. He should have been down-to-earth boring – after all, he grew up in Pittsburgh, in McKees Rocks of all places, and one side of his family was Czech and the other side Croatian. You don’t get much more down to earth than that. Those of us, who also grew up in the Czech enclaves on the north side of Pittsburgh, at roughly the same time, know that. You don’t put on airs. There’s no point. But somehow, after congress, Kasich ended up at Lehman Brothers’ investment banking division in Columbus as a managing director. He was playing in the big leagues. And after seven years there it was over – Lehman Brothers was gone in a puff of smoke as the whole economy imploded – so he ended up with his own show on Fox News, offering their usual blend of contempt for government and greedy workers, and cheering for the captains of industry – the few guys at the very top, the really important people. But the people of Ohio elected Kasich governor anyway – after which he and his shiny new Republican legislature went about privatizing everything in sight and going after the public sector unions – excoriating teachers in particular, along with cops and firefighters and road workers and whatnot. Suddenly there was a new law stripping them all of their collective bargaining rights. After all they were useless folks. None of them ever “created wealth” and they certainly weren’t job creators. They had no right to demand more money or any sort of benefits package or retirement plan. They just sucked up money, money that should go to tax cuts for corporations or the wealthy. One has to make the state business-friendly after all.

Scott Walker had done the same thing in Wisconsin and found himself facing a recall election. He survived but many members of his shiny new Republican legislature didn’t. Kasich got off easy – the people of Ohio gathered the necessary signatures and forced a vote on the new law. They repealed it by popular vote. Too many people knew teachers, personally, and too many of them also kind of liked cops and firefighters – and no one really had a gripe about the workers who fill the potholes in summer and plow the snow off the roads in winter. They got their collective bargaining rights back. Kasich may never work at Fox News again.

This made the national news for a time but then Ohio returned to the bland obscurity of the kind of place where nothing much ever happens – just how they like it there. Let everyone else get all hot and bothered. It’s better to be off to the side – you gain dispassionate perspective.

That couldn’t last of course. Kasich and his crew are still there:

The Obama campaign has sued the state of Ohio in federal court to restore the three day early voting period that Republicans in the state legislature eliminated the Beacon Journal reports.

“The last three days of early vote are especially important to ensuring a free and fair election,” Obama for America-Ohio Senior advisor Aaron Pickrell, Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern and DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a joint statement to the paper. “That is why today we are moving forward in the fight to reinstate the last three days of early voting and ensure that all Ohio voters can make their voices heard this November.”

The lawsuit claims that voters “will suffer direct and irreparable injury” as a result of the shortened voting period. “These voters may effectively lose the opportunity to vote if they do not have the ability to do so in the three days prior to the election, a time period when turnout has been particularly heavy in the past,” the suit states.

Here’s the lawsuit – if you like legal documents – but it’s pretty simple. Kasich and his crew decided to eliminate early voting – where the working poor on tight schedules are always voting, and since they are the working poor, always voting for Democrats. If you take that opportunity away from them there’s no way they can get off work to vote on Election Day. Cool. And you keep the process open for the military, because that sounds good and those guys almost always vote Republican.

This is pretty clever, and it also avoids all the questions that arise when you suddenly require expensive voter-ID cards that no one had time to get. Yes, that wipes out the vote of the poor who don’t have driver licenses, much less a car, and wipes out the vote of many of the elderly, but then it may be declared illegal – as a sort of poll tax. And it will look bad when tens of thousands of people who have voted all their lives show up and are told they have no right to vote at all and they should just go home. This is more subtle, and it has a built-in bonus for the Republicans:

Mitt Romney attacked a lawsuit brought by President Obama’s campaign seeking the restoration of early voting rights for Ohio voters by falsely implying that Obama is trying to take away the early voting privileges for members of the military.

“President Obama’s lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women extended early voting privileges during the state’s early voting period is an outrage,” Romney said in a statement Saturday.

No it isn’t:

Actually, the Obama campaign’s lawsuit, filed by the campaign in mid-July, explicitly asks a federal court to restore in-person early voting rights to all eligible Ohio voters on the three days preceding Election Day.

The suit does not seek to prevent members of the military from voting in person during that period, rather it seeks to force Ohio to give other voters (including, for instance, cops and firefighters) the same opportunity to vote.

Romney said in the statement that as president he would “work to protect the voting rights of our military, not undermine them.” He said that members of the military “make tremendous sacrifices to protect and defend our freedoms, and we should do everything we can to protect their fundamental right to vote.”

He’s riding this for all it’s worth, even if the folks at Fox News have dropped the matter. The intent of the suit is obvious – to expand early voting, or at least preserve it. Over 93,000 Ohio voters cast their ballot during that three day period in 2008 and you don’t want to piss them off, but here’s Katie Biber, legal counsel for the Romney campaign:

We disagree with the basic premise that it is “arbitrary” and unconstitutional to give three extra days of in-person early voting to military voters and their families, and believe it is a dangerous and offensive argument for President Obama and the DNC to make.

And here’s Kevin Drum:

That does sound offensive, doesn’t it? The nickel version of the truth is that Ohio recently restricted early voting for everyone except members of the military, and the Obama campaign wants the law overturned. They want everyone to be able to vote early. In other words, if Obama gets his way, nobody in the military will lose their early voting rights. Romney was just flat-out lying when he implied last week that Obama was trying to “undermine” the voting rights of members of the military.

On the other hand, it’s also true that if Obama’s suit succeeds, members of the military will no longer get special consideration, as the Ohio legislature wanted to give them. There’s little doubt that the motivation for this was largely partisan (the military tends to vote Republican), but you know what? There’s also a perfectly defensible case to be made that military voters do indeed deserve preferential treatment. Obama’s suit argues otherwise, and Republicans are making hay with it.

It’s good politics, even if silly:

Anyone suggesting that Obama is trying to restrict military voting rights is pretty plainly lying. On the other hand, if you stick to the argument that the military deserves special treatment and Obama opposes giving it to them – as Biber did – you’re in the clear. It’s nasty stuff, but still pretty garden variety attack politics.

It’s a matter of perspective. Can you step back and see what’s really going on? Back in the late sixties, on that pleasant hill high above that quiet little town in the dead center of Ohio, there really was no choice in the matter – it was forced perspective. Now you have to fight for perspective. Everything does not happen someplace else. Ohio isn’t what it used to be.

There’s a reason for that. All of politics is persuasion – offering a perspective and forcing it on voters, until they enthusiastically agree with your point of view or meekly submit, just giving up. And it’s happening again:

The White House denounced Mitt Romney’s “blatantly dishonest” charge that President Barack Obama is looking to “gut welfare reform” enacted under Bill Clinton by erasing a requirement that recipients actively seek work.

“This advertisement is categorically false, and it is blatantly dishonest,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing.

The ad is here and Oliver Knox explains it:

A new Romney ad seizes on a mid-July memo from the Department of Health and Human Services that signals the administration is open to waiving certain work requirements. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” the ad says. “They just send you your welfare check.” (The ad opens with a photo of Clinton, who worked with a Republican Congress to impose the work requirement, over the objections of liberal allies.)

But the memo says “HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF” and requires states seeking waivers to submit to a “federally-approved evaluation plan.”

“This administration’s policy will strengthen the program by giving states the opportunity to employ more effective ways to help people get off welfare and into a job,” Carney said.

The press secretary echoed a letter from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying that governors must commit to moving at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.

“Any request from any state that undercuts the work requirement in welfare reform will be rejected,” Carney said.

One must decide who is right:

Carney echoed an Obama campaign charge that Romney, as Massachusetts governor, signed on to a letter with 28 other Republican governors asking Congress to give them more flexibility to manage core requirements, saying they wanted waivers that would have “allowed people to stay on welfare forever.”

“Those are not standards the president supports,” said Carney, who underlined that the Obama administration’s proposals stemmed from requests by Republican Governors Gary Herbert of Utah and Brian Sandoval of Nevada.

In an unusually lengthy and sharp response to a campaign trail attack, Carney called the ad “an utter misrepresentation of the president’s policy,” “dishonest,” “false,” said Romney’s “hypocrisy knows no bounds.”

But Obama hates the military and wants to take away their right to vote, and he wants to give the Welfare Queens free Oreos and new Cadillac convertibles.

Not quite so, or so says Kevin Drum:

A few decades ago (in blog time – that’s a couple of weeks ago in ordinary time) Republicans were making hay with a charge that President Obama was “gutting” the work requirement of welfare reform by agreeing to consider waiver requests from various states. Never mind that some of the requests came from Republican governors, and never mind that the goal of the waivers was to increase the number of welfare recipients who transition into jobs (“Governors must commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance,” HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius confirmed in a letter). None of that mattered. Obama was gutting work requirements in obvious solidarity with welfare queens and strapping young bucks everywhere.

Anyway, I thought it was a three-day kind of eruption that had since died away.

Nothing dies away, and Drum cites Ed Kilgore explaining that this has become the centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s campaign, at least at the moment, and it’s rather absurd:

This is kind of personal with me. I worked on welfare policy back in the 90s at the Progressive Policy Institute, which was the absolute hotbed of “work first” approaches to welfare reform. Indeed, we were about the only people in the non-technical chattering classes who seemed to understand the distinction between the Clinton administration’s philosophy of welfare reform (aimed at getting welfare recipients into private-sector jobs, not just through work requirements but with robust “making work pay” supports like an expanded EITC, which was enacted at Clinton’s insistence well before welfare reform) and that of congressional Republicans (House Republicans were mainly concerned about punishing illegitimacy and denying assistance to legal immigrants, while Senate Republicans enacted a bill that was just a straight block grant that let states do whatever they wanted so long as they saved the feds money).

I mention this ancient history to point out the rich irony of conservatives now attacking Obama for an alleged hostility to the private-sector job placement emphasis they never gave a damn about, and for giving states more flexibility in administering the federal cash assistance program, which GOPers at every level of government (including Mitt Romney) were clamoring for loudly before, during and after the 1996 debate.

Drum:

There’s a technical question underlying all this that relates to HHS’s legal basis for considering these waivers, and I don’t really have an informed opinion about that. But Romney’s latest ad states flatly that Obama plans to gut welfare reform by “dropping work requirements.” What’s more, “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

This takes a shameless distortion and turns it into an outright falsehood. There’s no Obama plan in the first place; there’s certainly no plan to “drop” work requirements; and Sebelius has been crystal clear that the only waivers that will even be considered are ones that measurably increase the transition from welfare to work.

Ed Kilgore is pretty pissed-off about this for an additional reason:

It’s no mystery why the Romney campaign and its supporters are pursuing this dishonest and deeply hypocritical tack. In a “memorandum” released to support the new ad’s claims, Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chan accuses Obama of inflicting “a kick in the gut to the millions of hard-working middle-class taxpayers struggling in today’s economy, working more for less but always preferring self-sufficiency to a government handout.”

It’s the old welfare-queen meme, which Republicans have already been regularly reviving in their attacks on the Affordable Care Act, on Medicaid, on food stamps, and in their much broader and horrifyingly invidious claims that poor and minority people deliberately taking out mortgages they knew they couldn’t afford caused the whole housing market collapse and the financial crisis that followed.

Some things never change:

The claim that Obama is quietly bringing back the old welfare system is perfectly designed to bring back the old politics of the 1980s, when Republicans constantly (and often successfully) sought to pit middle-class voters against the poor while distracting attention from the vast welfare system supporting corporations and the wealthy.

Unlike ACA, Medicaid or even food stamps, there’s very little public support for the pre-1996 welfare system. So Romney and conservatives can go absolutely wild with this attack line, hauling in every racial innuendo imaginable with relatively little fear of blowback. As a bonus, I am sure Team Mitt is abundantly aware that many progressives disliked the 1996 law intensely and/or thought Clinton “caved” to Republicans in signing it…

All in all, this development in the campaign is a very nasty piece of work that I hope, but do not expect, Republicans come to regret.

And there’s another minor matter:

More fundamental, of course, is the fact, which you might think Republicans would remember since they talk about it with every breath, that the economy is not creating a lot of jobs right now.

Liberal critics warned back in 1996 that a reform scheme that might work in the red-hot tight-labor-market economy of that time would not necessarily work so well in a recession, and they were right (which is one reason that the Clinton administration and us Work First advocates favored a back-up paid community service option, which most conservatives were not interested in). If ever there was an appropriate time to relax specific work requirements to give recipients a few more options, this is it.

Mickey Kaus disagrees:

Even if there is a job shortage, the answer isn’t to get rid of the work requirements but to provide useful, public jobs (that recipients would then be required to perform, on pain of losing their checks, just like regular workers). You could call such jobs “workfare,” but in effect they would be something like a backdoor WPA.

Matthew Yglesias thinks he’s nuts:

Okay. But just try proposing that at an interagency meeting somewhere. You’ll be laughed out the door.

And too, it’s really hard to require work without full employment, which leads to the issue of monetary policy:

The great thing about the late-1990s was that we had a monetary framework committed to full employment and upward wage pressure. That created a dynamic in which nudging new people into the workforce really worked. With proven workers able to command raises, there was a market out there for marginal labor-market entrants. Consequently, not only was unemployment low and wages rising, but labor force participation was also rising. It was a really solid, virtuous dynamic – hardly a full-blown utopia, but certainly an example of things moving in the right direction. Today that bargain’s totally broken down…

That depends on your perspective, which might be the eighties. Kilgore noted this in 2009:

It’s really hard to say how much race has to do with the new “welfare wedge.” It was certainly central to the old one. It’s hard to ignore that the angry protesters at tea party and town hall protests are virtually all white. You can’t ignore Obama’s own race, or the attacks on both the president and the first lady as “black nationalists.” And the ongoing conservative obsession with ACORN, a minority-oriented (if marginally significant) grassroots advocacy group – an obsession that has played a central role in every right-wing attack on the Obama agenda before and after the 2008 elections – is significant.

But you don’t have to be a liberal, or a Democrat, or an Obama supporter to be concerned about the return of the “welfare wedge” and with it the savage treatment of hard-pressed working Americans as irresponsible bums who are conspiring toward a socialist society.

But that too is forced perspective. Step back. Get some distance. You don’t have to accept such things. If you were from Ohio, where nothing much ever happens, you’d know that. You already have plenty of distance.

Still there must be better ways to gain perspective. The place is boring. Maybe you can just think about what you’re being told.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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