Two decades ago, Democratic political strategist James Carville gave the presidential race between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton its own catchphrase when he told reporters the election would be about “the economy, stupid.”
This year, Carville may as well dust off that old chestnut. In Ohio, the issue will be key both in the presidential race and in the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Sherrod Brown and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
But there’s a catch: Ohio’s unemployment rate, at 7.2 percent, is lower than the 8.2 percent national unemployment rate. The auto industry, which appeared on the verge of calamity 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 is a matter of some dispute. Democrats say the auto bailout and the economic stimulus bill contributed to that growth. Republicans tout Republican Gov. John Kasich and state policies.
Economists, meanwhile, say both Democratic and Republican policies have helped, but Ohio factories and companies have also 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 gained 80,915 back. 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 that he says helped generate jobs by enabling companies to become more energy efficient. He said he’s also tried to use his office to encourage business to locate in Ohio.
Brown is walking a tightrope, however, because he was in office during the slide, and jobs remain hard to find despite the improvement.
The recovery is “nowhere near where we want it to be yet,” he acknowledges, adding that 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, who spent two terms in the state legislature before running statewide, 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.”
He argues that a complicated tax code, over-burdensome regulations and the 2010 health care signed by Obama are “killing small business.”
But pressed about the auto bailout, Mandel won’t say if he’s for or against it. He talks instead about a roundtable he did near Youngstown, where small business owners and others said that cooperation between 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 rest of the country.
Richard Stock, director of the business research group at the University of Dayton, said for years, Ohio lagged economically behind the rest of the country. 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,” he 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 W. “Ned” 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 revenues 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,” he 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.”
But a local union leader argues that blame for the country’s economic decline lies with trade agreements that led to the outsourcing of jobs, tax policies that encouraged companies to leave and wage cuts that sliced workers’ buying power.
“Senator Brown has done an immense amount of work to help the American economy and help the American worker. Josh Mandel has done nothing,” said James Winship, executive director of the Dayton-Miami Valley AFL-CIO Regional Labor Council.
Winship said Congress needs to pass a jobs bill and he criticized House Republicans for not considering Brown’s Senate-passed bill cracking down on Chinese currency manipulation, while at the same time the holding multiple votes to kill health care reform.
“You have to be part of the solution, not the problem,” said Winship. “By playing party favorites they aren’t doing anything to help the economy.”
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.
Dan Birdsong, a political science professor at the University of Dayton, said the fact that Ohio’s economy is slightly better than the national economy could make the election’s outcome less than clear-cut. But, he said, the economy clearly is a top issue for voters.
The key question, he said, will be whether voters who vote for Romney or Obama because of the economy automatically vote for Brown or Mandel for the same reason. He said that voters may consider other factors — such as not liking a particular Senate candidate on a personal level.
But because Ohio is one of a handful of states that really matter in this election, voters’ opinion of the economy particularly matters, he said.
“If the perception of the economy in Ohio is people are doing better, and they’re more optimistic, then that’s going to benefit the incumbent,” he said. “But if unemployment jumps a bit and the job numbers tank, we’re going to have quite a different story come November.”
Myca Christensen, 37, of Fairborn said if employment improves, people will spend money, they will have a more positive outlook and invest in the future.
“The economy is extremely important because everything flows out of that,” said Christensen, 37, of Fairborn.
She said the federal government should be more fiscally responsible and that both the government and citizens “have a responsibility to live within our means.”
Zereda Sullivan, 56, of Dayton, said she is thinking about voting but is not sure who she will pick and hopes whoever wins will look out for regular people like her that struggle to afford health care and education.
“We need more jobs, more education,” said Sullivan. “So many of our young people slip through the cracks.”
Tea Party supporter Augusts Magons, 70, of Xenia, said the only thing that improves the economy “is people working.”
He opposes “handouts” and said government’s main role in improving the economy is in monetary policy.
“You will always have people who are extremely poor,” said Magons.
Retired postal worker Andy Asebrook, 62, of Springfield, said he is not worried as much about the economy because he has a good pension.
But he said he feels sorry for younger people.
“I wouldn’t want to be a kid today,” said Asebrook. “Back in my day the jobs were there. Now everything is out of whack.”