In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 4: Ohio in a Swarm of Bees

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Columbus, Ohio

Traveling companions: none

Events: various with the two candidates for governor, John Kasich and Ted Strickland

Well, for the past two days, the song “Love Buzz” by The National has been rolling around my head because of its first line: “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees…” It was in my mind, in part, I think, because I was going to catch up with John Kasich, former Republican Congressman and music hound, whom I profiled in the New Yorker a long time ago. I have a soft spot for Kasich, who was part of Newt Gingrich’s inner circle when the revolution came. Kasich was Gingrich’s budget nut–and a truly inspired axeman he was, willing to take on any special interest, including the Pentagon. He campaigned to get the B-2 bomber killed, which earned him Dick Cheney’s everlasting emnity. He was also fun, endlessly boyish and entirely without malice, so far as I could tell. He ran for President, entirely unsuccessfully, in 2000 and was responsible for my favorite story of that year. He was scheduled to do a house party in Amherst, New Hampshire. The hostess, anxious to clear space for the Kasich entourage, backed her van out of her driveway and ran over her dog. “So there she was in tears, with a dead dog and what could I do? I asked her, ‘Got a shovel?’ took off my jacket and buried the dog.” I figured he’d love “Love Buzz,” but it turned out that he didn’t know The National. “I’m into Lady Gaga,” he said. “The music, not the costumes.”

I always saw Kasich as more a legislative character than an executive–he was too wild, too undisciplined and wonky–and though he’s aged some, he remains the same John Kasich. When I caught up with him this morning, he was holding a press conference in a factory, announcing a new job training initiative, flailing his arms around a convoluted box-and-line chart, saying, “Look at all this stuff–all these programs–and no coordination!” The trouble was, his solution was, well, incomprehensible.

He wanted to create a new board supervising the jobs training programs from out of the Governor’s office. But wasn’t that yet another layer of bureaucracy? Never mind. He did have one good idea: giving employers training vouchers they could give to their workers to go to local tech schools and community colleges to plus-up their skills. (I later learned that the current Ohio Governor Ted Strickland already has a similar program. Oh well, never mind.)

Joe Klein at a speech by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland in Delaware, Ohio. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

Afterwards, I ditched the Fridge and rode with Kasich to his next event. Our “interview” was a wild ride, equal parts policy, gossip, music–and some politics, although Kasich, who is riding a bit of a wave now, didn’t want to talk about his opponent, Governor Strickland. “I haven’t gone negative,” he said, which is true: the Republican Governors Association has gone negative for him. At a certain point, we were talking about regulatory reform, one of his big issues. (I later learned that Strickland had enacted the very sort of reform that Kasich envisioned, after consulting with and getting the support of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. Hmmm, again, never mind.)  I said that regulation was a pretty industrial age concept, and needed to be revamped for the Information Age. “That’s a great line! I’m going steal it,” he said.

“But John, you haven’t heard what I’d do to replace some regulations,” I replied. “Taxes. I’d tax corporate polluters rather than regulate them. I’d tax financial derivatives transactions rather than regulate them.” Silence from the candidate. “Don’t think I can go there,” he said.

Of course, he can’t! Kasich never met a tax he liked. He wants to eliminate the state income tax, which provides 46% of Ohio’s revenues. “Look, John and I were congressmen together in 1993,” Strickland told me later. “He voted against the Clinton economic plan and I voted for it. He said at the time, ‘If this thing works, I’ll become a democrat.” I seem to remember that, but…Katy?

Indeed he did, though in slightly different words. The full quote, from a CNN interview that year, was as follows: “This plan will not work. If it was to work, then I’d have to become a Democrat and believe that more taxes and bigger government is the answer.”

This brings up one of the most important lessons of the past 30 years: supply-side tax cuts don’t work (Reagan, responsibly, raised taxes after he lowered them; George W. Bush, irresponsibly, didn’t)…and reasonable, targeted tax increases, such as those Clinton imposed and Obama now wants to restore, have no negative effect on the economy. I don’t think Kasich will ever become a Democrat, but it would be nice, if he is elected, if he acts as responsibly on taxation as he did, a decade ago, on expenditures.

Strickland is very much a grownup. He is 69 years old, a former minister who grew up poor in southern Ohio’s hillbilly country, one of nine children. He compares himself to a salmon swimming upstream during this Republican year, “but salmon ultimately make it upstream,” he smiles, “and spawn.” He has balanced Ohio’s budget without raising taxes the past two years. And he isn’t running scared when it comes to defending the President or the Democratic agenda. “I was just up in Lordstown,” he told a group of supporters in Delaware, Ohio, this afternoon. “They opened a new Chevy plant.” The plant had hired 4500 workers to produce 1260 copies of the Chevy Cruise, which is not a hybrid but gets 40 miles per gallon. “That wouldn’t be happening if the President hadn’t helped the auto industry.”

He then told a pretty amazing story: At a moment when Obama was still considering the auto bailout, top executives from Honda–which operates a huge engine plant in Marysville, Ohio–asked to meet him on a frigid night. They said, “We’re not often advocates for our competitors, but 80% of our subcontractors also do work for the Big Three”–the anachronistic nickname for Ford, GM and Chrysler–“and it’s a very fragile network. If the American companies fail, some of our subcontractors may go out of business. Please ask the President to help save GM and Chrysler…

Political stickers at a speech by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland in Delaware, Ohio. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

“I’m here to talk about the Democratic philosophy of government,” he said, sticking out his chest just a bit. “Government has a role to play.”

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.