Cincinnati is a pretty nice place – here are pages and pages of photographic proof – but nothing much happens there. Mark Twain once said that if the world came to an end he wanted to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later. And Cleveland is, well, Cleveland, improbable home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the setting for that cynical baseball movie Major League – which opens with long shots of industrial Cleveland at its scruffiest and the Randy Newman song Burn On, Big River. Yes, the place is so gritty-nasty that the Cuyahoga River really did use to catch fire regularly. There’s also that current hit television show Hot in Cleveland – the title is meant to be ironic. Nothing is hot there, except for the river, occasionally. And 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. It seems that Ohio is a place you really ought to leave, if you can.
But it is a politically important state. In 2004 it was the new Florida – George Bush would not have won a second term if they had actually counted all the Ohio votes – not that it matters now. At least it didn’t go to the Supreme Court. And the irony was that George Bush, having squeaked by with a little help from his friends, not the actual voters, again, decided the people had spoken and he had a clear mandate – to privatize Social Security and pretty much end it. And the whole country, even most Republicans, shrugged and ignored him. He was stunned, but such things happen when you take Ohio too seriously.
But here we are again, in the middle of what looks to be a close presidential election, and suddenly Ohio was at the center of things. Thursday, June 14, 2012 – Obama travels to Cleveland to deliver a speech on the economy, which will or will not end two weeks of small gaffes and misunderstandings and seeming vagueness, clarifying just why he thinks he deserves a second term, even if the economy is kind of stuck in minimal growth now. And Mitt Romney quickly schedules his own speech on the economy, in Cincinnati, so he gets to speak first, preempting Obama – telling America that Obama has had three and a half years, and while he’s a nice guy, he’s in over his head and hasn’t fixed a damned thing. If you were home alone, and bored, you could watch these two speeches back-to-back – Romney then Obama. But few did. Speeches on the economy are inherently boring, or at least dismal.
But Oliver Knox at The Ticker has a nice compact summary:
Speaking to skeptical voters nationwide from the pivotal battleground of Ohio, President Barack Obama defiantly defended his record on the economy Thursday and painted Mitt Romney as the standard-bearer for those who would bring back George W. Bush’s policies.
“I want to speak to everybody who is watching who may not be a supporter, may be undecided, or thinking about voting the other way,” Obama said. “If you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney.”
Yes, Romney had been saying that government is useless and there should be less of it, and there should be no rules and regulations on much of anything, and everyone would then prosper – just as George Bush had said, and every Republican back to Calvin Coolidge in fact. The choice is slow progress, or going back to what has always been disastrous.
And in the other corner:
Romney, speaking to supporters at an aluminum plant in Cincinnati moments before Obama’s remarks, offered his own version of the choice voters face on Nov. 6.
“If you think things are going swimmingly, if you think the president’s right when he said the private sector is doing fine, well, then he’s the guy to vote for,” he said.
So, let’s see – things are going badly, so let’s go back to the “cut taxes and spend nothing and regulate nothing” way of running things, but do more of it. It might work this time, and giving it another try is better than what we have now – a guy who knows nothing.
But Obama had that covered:
Obama opened his remarks with a direct reference to his much-mocked claim last Friday that the “private sector is doing fine” compared to cash-strapped state and local governments. Republicans including Mitt Romney have seized on that comment to suggest the president is out of touch.
“So, Ohio, over the next five months, this election will take many twists and many turns, polls will go up and polls will go down, there will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about,” he said.
“You may have heard I recently made my own unique contribution to that process. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last,” the president said in the verbal equivalent of a dismissive shrug.
But the idea was to suggest none of that matters very much:
Obama worked to cast Nov. 6 as “a choice between two fundamentally different visions” about the best path out of the rubble left by the 2007-2008 global economic meltdown – not a referendum on an embattled incumbent at a time of 8.2 percent unemployment.
“The economic vision of Mr. Romney and his allies in Congress was tested just a few years ago,” Obama said. “We tried this. Their policies did not grow the economy. They did not grow the middle class. They did not reduce our debt.”
“Why would we think that they would work better this time?” said the president, who has used variations on that theme in scores of campaign events all over the country over the past few months.
“We can’t afford to jeopardize our future by repeating the mistakes of the past. Not now. Not when there’s so much at stake,” he said.
And Romney offered his usual attack lines. “Talk is cheap. Action speaks very loud.” (He probably meant “loudly.”) And Obama had his response – “Our economy started growing again six months after I took office and it has continued to grow for the last three years.” That ain’t exactly chopped liver.
And then Obama turned tables on Romney and went to the core of the matter:
“What’s holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take,” he said. “And this election is your chance to break that stalemate.”
“If they win the election, their agenda will be simple and straightforward; they have spelled it out. They promise to roll back regulations on banks and polluters, on insurance companies and oil companies. They’ll roll back regulations designed to protect consumers and workers while cutting taxes on the very wealthy,” Obama said.
The president said he would boost investments in education, scientific research and refurbishing the country’s crumbling infrastructure.
And that was the core of it. But Andrew Sullivan blogged the Obama speech live, and here are a few of the details he observed:
2.22 pm. The debate is not about the state of the economy; we all agree it sucks. The debate Obama wants is “about how we grow faster and how we get more jobs and how we pay down our debt”. So far, this is about as good a summary of the case as those of us who support him could have expected.
That’s basically reframing the debate – this is not about what the other guy says this is about. And perhaps Romney made a big mistake in choosing the preemptive strike, to make sure he spoke first. He foolishly set things up so that Obama got the last word – as the say in show business Romney chose to be the opening act for the headliner everyone actually came to see. It was a bad choice, and then there was this:
2.27 pm. Now he’s arguing that the tax reform Romney proposes would effectively be a big tax increase on the middle class. Money quote: “This is nothing new. It’s what Bill Clinton described as old ideas on steroids.” And if you want to return to big tax cuts, huge spending cuts and the agenda of the Bush years, then vote for Romney! That’s a great line: he’s telling people who miss the policies of George W Bush to vote for Romney. Awesome line! Except he can’t quite say the word “Bush.”
2.30 pm. “We tried this.” It didn’t work. The speech began with a statement of a clear choice, then pivots to a brutal attack on Romney’s return to the past, and then a peroration on his “different vision.” Let’s see how persuasive it is.
But there’s a reason not to mention Bush. He’s long gone. The issue is Romney now, or really, the alternative:
2.34 pm. His pitch is basically a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction (i.e. not balancing the budget entirely on the backs of the middle class and the poor). Then serious investment in education and infrastructure… But he’s framing this in a very Clintonian way – touting his own tax cuts, decent private sector job growth, and deficit plans. He is, in my view, nailing it.
2.36 pm. Now we have a passage declaring that he is not a big government liberal; he wants to cut and streamline regulations, cut unnecessary taxes, reduce the government’s size and inefficiency. He’s touting a $2 trillion deficit reduction. “I do not believe the government is the answer to all our problems. I do not believe that we should be in the business of helping people who will not help themselves.” Then he invokes Lincoln as his mentor – doing things together we cannot do alone.
2.40 pm. Now he’s invoking Lincoln and Eisenhower and even Nixon and Reagan on the need for common projects for the common good – from the interstate highway to the EPA and reforming social security. He’s giving a speech to a highly partisan crowd, but this is a speech delivered to all those centrists and independents that backed him in 2008. And given the cogency of his case, it’s a powerful message. Because it engages the facts of the last two decades and gets concrete on what he, compared with Romney, wants to do in the next four years.
2.43 pm. Now he’s stressing education as the last thing we should cut if we want to have a middle class economy in the future. And then a dig at Romney: “I want to hire more teachers.” Ouch. Then a pitch to young immigrants with education: “we won’t deport them.” Another direct tackle.
And Obama only got stronger:
2.50 pm. Now the deficit and a withering attack on those who only care about the deficit when the other party is in office, but not when they are. “If you really want to do something about it …” then the tax code has to ask the wealthiest Americans to contribute. Then he’s essentially running on Clinton’s record of raising taxes on the rich and precipitating a jobs and millionaire boom.
Brilliant line: “We don’t have a choice to bring down our deficit. We have a choice about how we bring down our deficit.” I like the adjective about deficit reduction: “honest” and “balanced”. And then he actually says that cutting the deficit should not be done by giving Mitt Romney a new tax cut while rendering sick seniors insecure. Brutal. Effective. The argument is there. And he’s beginning to put it together.
Sullivan has much more, but here is where he settles:
My bottom line? A home run. Simply constructed, carefully reframed, aggressive while positive: the Obamaites have been listening to critics and are responding. If this is his message, and if he is able to keep articulating it this clearly, he will win. And in my view, the experience of the last thirty years is that he should win. If I have to choose between a governing philosophy espoused by Bill Clinton, or one espoused by George W. Bush, it’s a no-brainer. And I can’t stand Bill Clinton.
And there’s Ed Kilgore:
I like what I’m hearing, not only because it frames the election as a choice between two stark, fundamentally different visions of what the country needs economically, but because it implicitly challenges Republicans to explain exactly what they are proposing now that Bush and company didn’t propose during the ‘oughts.
It’s amazing to me that Republicans have managed to avoid association with the Bush economic record by repeatedly attacking Bush for not doing even more of the things that wrecked the economy. Bush didn’t deregulate enough. Bush didn’t cut taxes enough. Bush didn’t shred the social safety net enough. Bush didn’t ratchet down nondefense discretionary spending that provides public sector jobs and private-sector contracts enough. These are the aspects of Bush’s record that lead today’s Republicans to say he “betrayed conservative principles;” these are the “mistakes” they would correct. ….
I particularly like his adoption of Bill Clinton’s line that Romney’s economic policies are Bush’s policies “on steroids.” Maybe if he repeats that a few hundred times, Team Mitt will finally have to explain exactly how its policies differ from those of Bush, and admit that it’s mainly a matter of even more regressive taxes and an assault on the New Deal and Great Society legacy that Bush could only dream about.
So if that is what you want, vote for Romney. But Matthew Yglesias wasn’t as impressed:
If you wanted a concise version of the speech it’s this: Obama thinks there are a lot of worthwhile things the public sector does – give old people health insurance and pensions, build transportation infrastructure, finance K-12 schools, subsidize college tuition – and that in order to pay for those things we should raise taxes on high-income people. Romney thinks that higher taxes on high-income people would be really bad for economic growth and that Obama is overestimating the value of these public sector undertakings so we should cut them instead.
Unfortunately, far and away the least plausible portions of the speech were the ones where Obama tried to explain how re-electing him would lead to his vision becoming law. He’s quite persuasive on the point that an Obama re-election would block Romney from doing various perhaps-objectionable things. But the idea that a second term for Obama will change the fact that 41 Republican Senators can and will filibuster any Obama ideas that they don’t like (i.e., basically all of them) doesn’t add up.
Fundamentally, the very depth of the divide between the parties that Obama highlighted at one point in the speech makes it extremely unlikely that the other stuff he was talking about will happen. Sharp polarization, party discipline, and a political process with many veto points just don’t go very well together.
Yes, Matthew Yglesias is probably right. A President Romney could do real damage to the country, and would. And keeping Obama is keeping a guy who can do nothing, given the current structure of the government. So this is a choice between total disaster and stalemate and stasis, and no relief for anyone. That’s not much of a choice.
And maybe Andrew Sprung gets to the root of the problem:
Over time, an increasingly extremist GOP has managed to induce a critical mass of voters to green-light its embodiment in law of two ideological tenets that are simple naked rationalizations of the narrowest interests of what we now call the 1%: 1) that tax increases always inhibit productive economic activity, and 2) that “free speech” entails prohibiting any restrictions on vested interests’ access to the airwaves for any purpose whatever.
And Kevin Drum agrees:
And the epic destruction of American unions over the past few decades has meant there was really no one to fight back against this. The victory of the 1% may have been spearheaded by the Republican Party, but it was aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that had no choice except to embrace corporations and the rich as its base of support as the labor movement faded away.
And he thinks all the other factors people mention don’t matter all that much:
There’s more to life than economic interests, and people vote their values as well. But no matter how many times I hear that, I really don’t buy it. There are plenty of people on the right and the left who care a lot about values and vote them pretty assiduously – me, for example – but in the vast middle ground values are more malleable. Views on abortion and gays and guns and religion tend to be less deeply held. For many of these folks in the middle, pocketbook issues would be decisive if they actually believed that one party was better for their pocketbook than the other. But increasingly they don’t. Partly this is because of the GOP’s messaging success and partly because the modern Democratic Party is, thanks to its reaction to the GOP’s success, only modestly better for them anyway.
And it was the financial collapse of 2008 that convinced him of that:
In any normal universe, that collapse should have ushered in an era of populist politics and ruined the Republican Party for years. Not for a generation, mind you – 2008 wasn’t 1929 and George W. Bush wasn’t Herbert Hoover – but certainly for a good long time. After all, how clear could things be? We followed the precise path that Wall Street and the Republican Party laid down for us and the result was the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression. That sort of thing should keep you out of power for at least a few election cycles, no? But in fact, it kept them out of power for only one election cycle. That was it. The last few years have been a period of time in which the economy was overwhelmingly the most important electoral issue, and vast swaths of the American public simply haven’t held the GOP or its policies responsible. They might tell pollsters they do, but in the voting booth, where it counts, they don’t.
And he is amazed:
Republican economic policy has always promoted the interests of corporations and the rich. Once upon a time, this wasn’t even an issue of contention. Everyone knew it and acted accordingly. The GOP’s great triumph over the past three decades has been to gull the American public into believing that it’s no longer the case. Their success has been nothing short of astonishing.
And Romney was relying on that in Cincinnati, and, in Cleveland, Obama was hoping it wasn’t so. And thus we got these two somewhat predictable speeches, and learned, once again, it’s dangerous to take Ohio all that seriously. The State Beverage is tomato juice and the State Insect is the ladybug. And now and then that river in Cleveland catches fire. It’s time to move on.