In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 5: Ohio Senate Race

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Joe Klein meets with Democratic candidate for Senate Lee Fisher. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

Detroit, Michigan

Traveling Companions: none

Just a quick note, since I have to go pick up my next traveling companion–Rodney Crowell, the great Nashville singer-songwriter–at the airport. We’re going to an Eid celebration (the end of Ramadan) tonight in the Detroit suburbs, then a full schedule of events this morning.

This morning, I interviewed both candidates for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat. The Democrat, Lee Fisher, is a good man who has spent most of his adult life shuttling between running a mental health/social services center in Cleveland and public office. He is currently Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor. We talked about economic development, which is lagging here, but has been his focus. “In fact, it’s going to be my focus for the rest of my life–I’ve come to realize what a major impact it has on the mental and family health issues I’ve been working on my entire career. I mean, you can send your kids to the very best school, but if the parents are upstairs, cowering under the covers, in a deep depression because of their economic prospects, then you’ve got a real problem.” He said that was a problem he had with President Obama: he hadn’t focused fiercely enough on the country’s economic problems. “I’m in favor of health care reform–but it was a question of when, not whether. He should have devoted himself exclusively to the economy.” And done what? I asked. Things got a little fuzzy at that point, and Fisher seemed to be saying that the problem was a question of marketing: “It needed to be more of a laser-like focus. There’s only so much the American people can digest at one time.”

Joe Klein meets with Republican candidate for Senate Rob Portman in Columbus, Ohio. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

The Republican candidate, Rob Portman, is a more intriguing proposition. He is a budget expert–was George W. Bush’s OMB director–and a real intellectual (which may be something of a handicap in these witless, anti-“elitist” times). He has lots of ideas, including a one-year payroll tax holiday for people with incomes under $50,000. “I’m not opposed to stimulus,” he told me. “But I would have done it much differently from the President and at about half the size. Our estimates are that my plan would have created 4 to 5 million jobs.” His plan would’ve also included some long-term infrastructure work. “The Democrats in the House used the opportunity to fill out a laundry list of things that shouldn’t have been there–like $2 billion for Head Start, without any reforms to make it work better.” (He’s right, by the way: Head Start is a worthy program than doesn’t work as well as it should; it needs a major rethink.)

Portman is a conservative, no question, but not one of the lunatics–he’s solid, sane and civil. He’s leading in this race and one wonders what impact a sane fiscal conservative, with his credentials, might have on the Republican Senate caucus. President Obama has privately said that he’d love to have someone like the British Prime Minister David Cameron as an opposition leader (and Cameron is said to have private doubts about the relentlessly negative nature of the U.S. conservative movement). I asked Portman if he thought he could work with the President. “Sure,” he said. I suspect the President would be delighted to sit down in a room with Portman and hash things out, too; in fact, he might well have gone with Portman’s payroll tax holiday–if Portman were willing to make some concessions on his side. A fantasy, no doubt … but it sure¬†would be a refreshing change.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.