Why Dayton, Ohio?

Just 8 miles from my home office, thousands of Republicans are cheering Sen. John McCain as he introduces his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Many pundits are likely acratching their heads and wondering: Why Palin? I’m asking a more important question for the campaign: Why Dayton, Ohio? After all, the selection of the VP is arguably the most important decision a presidential candidate can make after he or she decides to run. The choice of Ohio is not that big of a stretch: It’s a key battleground state. It has a lot of votes (electoral and otherwise) and the presidential race is up for grabs. Most Ohio observers see the two candidates running neck and neck. That’s a tactical reason to choose Ohio. There’s also a strategic reason. Ohio is not a free market, libertarian state. It’s voters are populist, both as conservatives and liberals. The liberal populists tend to be progressive–they like big, expansive government on social and economic issues. They are sympathetic to the idea that competent politicians can take over the economy because they can manage it better. The conservative populists tend to like government on social issues (particularly abortion) and, except for business leaders, aren’t opposed to the idea of a managed economy with the right people at the helm. Social conservatives are okay with expanding Medicaid because its the government’s responsiblity to take care of people. This is the progressive government tradition inherited by Republicans from politicians like Teddy Roosevelt. Notably, Ohio was a hot-bed (and national leader) of socialism and progressive government in the early 20th century, even electing socialists to majorities on a few city councils (including Dayton). Progressivism’s legacy is evident from the widespread adoption of the city manager form of government to public ownership of utilties (including more recently cable and wireless systems). But, why Dayton, Ohio? Columbus is the biggest city (closing in on 700,000), Cleveland is the oldest and largest metropolitan area, and Cincinnati has one of the highest concentrations of Republican contributors in the nation (in Hamilton County). I’m sure we’ll know more after the text of McCain’s speech if printed and made publicly available, but I suspect my home town was chosen because it is a symbol of decline and economic uncertainty. The region has a proud economic history, and I’ve chronicled that elswhere in the “Rise and Fall of an Industrial Juggernaut,” but the economic hits have been steady and big for the last three decades. General Motors and Delphi are scaling down and two more automobile assembly plants are closing, taking another 3-5,000 jobs with them (blame that on China). Nearby by DHL (owned by the German postal sevice) is closing its air freight hub in Wilmington, Ohio, taking another 8,000 jobs with them (and shifting them to Louisville). Both events play into the economic xenophobia that has marked both the Obama and McCain campaigns (particularly during the primary). They also reinforce an inferiority complex that feeds well into presidential campaigns where party platforms highlight the things that government can do for the people to save them (even from themselves). More to the point, Dayton is an important strategic symbol of the struggles of the “old” US economy and the kind of place (with voters) that progressive, populist politicians would target with their policies of using public largess to bring “the people” out of an economic quagmire. From the perspective of political leadership, making the VP announcement in Dayton also reinforces McCain’s tendancy to embrace the political challenges of hard problems. With the election of New Deal-styled progressive Democrat Ted Strickland (another Democratic Party rising star in the mold of Obama), McCain is going deep into enemy territory and attempting to defeat him from the inside. That’s a smart and bold political strategy, and helps perpetuate the political myth of McCain as maverick. The old saying was “If it plays in Peoria it will play anywhere.” Perhaps, for this election, we can change that to “If it plays in Dayton, Ohio it will play anywhere.”