Choosing a senator | Claiming the credit
August 20, 2012
WASHINGTON — Two decades ago, Democratic political strategist James Carville gave the presidential race between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton its own catchphrase. The election, he said, would be about “the economy, stupid.”
This year, Carville can dust off that old chestnut. In Ohio, the issue is key in the presidential race and the U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel.
But there’s a catch: Ohio’s unemployment rate, at 7.2 percent, is lower than the 8.2 percent national rate. The auto industry, which appeared on the verge of collapse a few years ago, has made a resurgence. Recovery appears to be happening faster in Ohio than it is in the rest of the country.
Who gets the credit for that is a matter of dispute. Democrats say the auto bailout and the economic-stimulus bill contributed to that growth. Republicans credit Republican Gov. John Kasich and state policies.
Economists, meanwhile, say both Democratic and Republican policies have helped, but Ohio factories and companies also have made themselves more competitive by increasing productivity.
The state lost 329,019 jobs between January 2000 and January 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But between January 2010 and January 2012, it regained 80,915. Some 30 percent of economic growth occurred in manufacturing, according to Mark Schweitzer, research director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Brown credits a variety of policies, including tax incentives he spearheaded encouraging companies to become more energy-efficient, with helping to generate jobs. He said he also has tried to use his office to encourage businesses to locate in Ohio.
The recovery, Brown said, is “nowhere near where we want it to be yet.”
But, he said, without the auto rescue, the stimulus and the financial rescue package, “we would have been in a depression.”
Of the three, the auto bailout makes him particularly proud.
“Of the four major Ohio auto companies, all four of them are doing major expansions in Ohio to the tune of hundreds and hundreds of million dollars,” he said, adding that Honda and Ford, which never asked for bailout money, still benefited because of the auto rescue’s impact on suppliers.
But Mandel said it’s not enough, and argues that Brown’s record “is a record of job loss and failure.”
He defines the difference between himself and Brown simply: “Sherrod Brown thinks that Washington is the answer,” he said. “And I think that Washington is the problem, and the more we get Washington out of the way ... the stronger and quicker our economy will grow.”
Mandel says a complicated tax code, over-burdensome regulations and the 2010 health-care law signed by Obama are “killing small business.”
But pressed about the auto bailout, Mandel won’t say where he stands. He talks instead about a roundtable he did near Youngstown, where small-business owners and others said that cooperation among local leaders, management and the unions helped save and grow auto-industry jobs.
“Those people told me they were sick and tired of seeing people like Sherrod Brown and others in Congress take credit for saving the auto industry,” he said.
Economists say that the state’s economy is undoubtedly better than the nation’s. State unemployment rates in June ranged from 2.9 percent in North Dakota to 11.6 percent in Nevada.
Richard Stock, director of the business research group at the University of Dayton, said that for years, Ohio lagged economically. Now, the reverse is true: “We’re doing pretty good relative to the rest of the country.”
“There’s no question Ohio was helped tremendously by a combination of the auto rescue and the stimulus,” Stock said. “I certainly would not want to be in an Ohio without the rescue going through.”
Republicans have been particularly critical of the stimulus, saying it contributed to the federal deficit. But without it, said Edward Hill, dean of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, “The recession would’ve been much deeper, much longer than it was.”
And if that had happened, tax revenue would’ve plummeted, and “the deficit would’ve been bigger than what we’re currently seeing.”
Hill gives Brown credit for being “a very effective megaphone for Ohio-specific issues in Washington,” saying he’s shined a light on trade issues and manufacturing policy.
“Manufacturing knows they always have an open door and an audience with Senator Brown’s office,” he said.
Others regard Brown in a harsher light.
Rob Engstrom, national political director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Brown’s record on the economy is what spurred the chamber to begin running ads against him beginning in November of last year. He said the race presents “the starkest example of clear and complete differences between the candidates on business issues.”
“We just lived through a period of time where Sherrod Brown got his way,” Engstrom said. “He got his way on energy, he got his way on health care … and look where we are. It’s a record of failure.”
The narratives — Democrats tanking the economy versus saving it from further calamity — are incredibly different. The degree to which they’ll matter to voters, however, is up for debate.
Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck said while the economy “clearly is a concern” among voters, it’ll really matter primarily to the tiny segment of swing voters in the state. The rest, he said, will likely vote according to their party.
It’s also possible, he said, that the same voters who blame Obama for the economy will also blame Republicans in Congress.
“I think in the end, very few will decide between Sherrod Brown and Josh Mandel based on the state of the economy,” he said. “They’ll decide on other grounds.”