Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip, Day 16: A Big Problem for Republicans

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Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Police officer Pat Moll looks at a list of grievances at the Bar None restaurant during Joe Klein's annual road trip in Brighton, Mich., on Saturday, June 16, 2012.

Brighton, Michigan

On my first road trip two years ago, I stopped here to meet with a group of first responders–police officers, firefighters and EMT workers. It turned out to be one of the most memorable meetings I’ve ever had. The high, or low, point was when I asked the group how many of their homes were “under water”–that is, worth less than their mortgages–and 9 of 11 raised their hands. These people were the heart of the American middle class, and they were suffering. “Not much has changed there,” said Kevin Gentry, a firefighter and adjunct law professor at Michigan State, who had gathered members of the group once again to give me an update. “We’re all still under water.”

But, once again, this group of first responders had some very smart insights into the state of the union. “This time I came prepared,” said Pat Moll, a local police officer, a conservative who last time had memorably said that he just didn’t like President Obama, but thought it was more important for the federal government to provide FDR-style jobs programs than work on deficit reduction. This time, he pulled a bill of particulars against the President from his uniform shirt:

1. Giving work permits to the children of illegal immigrants. It takes jobs away from American workers.

2. Suing Arizona over its immigration law. We’ve got to control our border.

3. Interfering with local law enforcement. (Obama’s criticism of the officer involved in the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

4. Fast and Furious–the failed scheme to sell arms south of the border as a way to locate the drug cartels.

We worked through Pat’s list for a while. “You see Obama swinging in different ways on these issues and it’s just to get votes,” he said. “I just don’t trust the guy in my gut.”

(VIDEO: Joe Klein’s Road Trip: Partisans in Ohio)

But there was seriously bad news for Mitt Romney as well. Most of the first responders had voted for the Republican businessman Rick Snyder in the 2010 gubernatorial election. They had voted for a Republican legislature as well. And now they were bitterly disappointed. “We really need to get the economy moving here,” Kevin Gentry said, “and all these guys want to deal with are social issues, and irrelevant stuff. They want to regulate abortion clinics out of business. There was a big fight over a no-helmet law for motorcycle riders. They’re spending too much time on whether to build a second bridge to Canada.”

“I’m not very happy with the governor, either,” said Pat Moll. “He’s attacked our public workers–the teachers and police officers.”

“They’re trying to take away money from the University of Michigan for doing research on things like stem cells,” said Hilary Gentry, who is married to Kevin and works for a state health agency. “And they just banned two state reps from the legislature for using the word ‘vagina.’ How ridiculous is that?!”

“I voted for Snyder but I can’t vote for Romney,” Kevin Gentry said. “He’s running on the same thing that Snyder did–he’s a businessman, but he has a conservative social agenda. And we’ve seen what comes first when they get in office.” Gentry also said that Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout “makes him look stupid in Michigan.” (Although Gentry took pains to point out the difference between the auto bailout, which helped average folks, and the bank bailouts, which only helped the bankers to “line their pockets.”)

(MORE: Day 16: Citizenship Ain’t Easy)

“I think,” said Officer Moll, “we’re screwed either way.”

But Obama seemed more acceptable to the group than Romney did. “I’ve never been a Democrat, but I like Obama,” said Ruth Grant, who is an investigating coroner. “All of these politicians are so egotistical in Washington,” she said, and added that she was particularly upset with the Republicans. “They don’t want to pass anything for the people because the President is not on their side and they don’t want him to get credit.”

This conversation reminded me of several I had in North Carolina and Virginia where Republicans had taken control of state legislatures and used their power to focus on social issues. Moderate Republicans in those states, including the business community, were infuriated, too. If any, or all, of these states vote for Obama–especially Virginia–he’s likely to win the presidency…and he’ll do it the old-fashioned way: because people sampled Republican control after the election of 2010 and found it feckless in a difficult economic time.

MORE: Day 15: Force of Nature