Apart from certain quarters on the Right predicting a Romney victory on Election Day, the final weeks of the campaign witnessed a gathering sentiment, almost a last-minute conventional wisdom, about the election’s outcome. It went something like this: Obama had a significant and reliable lead until the first debate. Pre-debate, Republicans lamented a lackluster Romney campaign. The candidate’s enthusiasm gap among Republican voters seemed insurmountable. His financial supporters appeared ready to pull the plug. The campaign’s Paul-Ryan shot in the arm had flat-lined. Halting speculation began on 2016 nominations, as though an Obama reelection was inescapable.
And then came the first debate. Obama’s notorious failure to participate gave Romney a revival that resembled an intercardiac adrenaline injection. Obama’s lead in the popular vote began melting away. The very idea that Romney might win fed on itself, rousing Republican voters who’d been ho-humming the candidate for months. Swing state polls tightened.
But not quite enough, continued the conventional wisdom. Obama held on to his lead in Ohio. Same in Wisconsin. And in Iowa. The “firewall held”. Romney seemed to hold a hand that had no route to 270 electoral votes without Ohio. We had the beginning of discussions of an Obama victory in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. There was an irony to all this: Obama’s fortune in the polls seemed to resemble the arc of his administration’s 2009 stimulus bill: It wasn’t sufficient to whip the great recession, but it managed to put a floor under the economy’s free-fall. Obama’s first debate debacle sent his fortunes plummeting, but there seemed to be a floor under it. He looked like he’d squeak through. Indeed, in the final week he even seemed to be rallying a bit.
Attached to this conventional-wisdom narrative was an equally conventional-wisdom explanation, an agreed-upon hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, as explained by polling analyst Nate Silver among others, the pivotal fact that Ohio was holding for Obama in the polls was explained by the auto bailout. One in eight jobs in Ohio, we heard repeatedly, was dependent on the auto industry. Without the bailout, a million jobs would have been lost. The unemployment rate in one-time hopelessly rust-belt Ohio has stayed well below the national average. Mitt Romney seemed unable to convince the media-saturated Ohio voter that the administration’s auto bailout was just what he meant when he proposed to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Indeed, as though to give sustenance to the auto-bailout hypothesis, the Romney campaign, already celebrated for attacks based on distortion of the opposition’s words, forged a doozie, deforming bullish Chrysler expansion plans into a claim of shipping Ohio jobs to China. Even the auto companies came off the sidelines to object.
But the auto-bailout hypothesis missed a larger point. There is a bigger and better hypothesis to explain the successful Obama firewall: The 2010 election, and the experience of living under Tea Party rule. 2010 was the Tea Party election. It took place when the effects of the 2008 financial collapse, housing collapse and great recession reached their nadir, creating as near a moment of widespread economic panic as any of us has seen in our lifetimes. The Tea Party’s stunning rise, beginning in early 2009, fed the fear that, in a moment of scarcity and debt, policies offering support to the unemployed or the uninsured were further threats to the security of the established older conservative voters who made up the movement’s constituency.
One part of the Tea Party is made up of free-market absolutists. This is the Koch Brothers’ Tea Party, the Dick Armey Tea Party. It is the lineal descendent of an incensed Republican conservatism that furiously objected to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of the 1930s and has attempted to control the Republican Party ever since. What makes the Tea Party unique in the march of modern American conservatism is that the passions of the populist right, the uncompromising, expressive side of American conservatism, were brought to bear in the name of the doctrines of the free-market absolutists. Suddenly, the zeal and the vitriol usually reserved for opposing abortion or the “gay agenda” were being directed against Keynesian stimulus legislation, cap and trade climate legislation, economic regulation and, above all, expansion of health insurance coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans.
The Tea Party understands that its power derives from showing up. Their numbers overwhelmed Republican primaries, ending the careers of Republican politicians they deemed inadequately conservative. In the 2010 by-election, the normal tendency of voters to show up in lesser numbers was exaggerated among Democrats who were disappointed in the presidency of Barack Obama. This, in a country which has been close to split down the middle politically for a generation, and in a year when the opposition was not only more radical than ever, but more passionate as well.
The upshot? In state after state, Tea Party candidates, the most severely conservative faction represented on a major party slate in a hundred years, swept into congressional and state-legislature seats, and state-wide offices. Wisconsin elected a Tea Party governor and legislature, a majority Republican delegation to the House of Representatives, and a U.S. Senator who ousted a long-time liberal incumbent. The same was true in Ohio, where Republicans swept all statewide offices.
For the conservative movement, this was an opportunity it had been lying in wait for over a lifetime: the chance to pass legislation more radical than anything they had ever been able to get through these legislatures. Laws restricting access to abortion were passed in 2011 in numbers threefold any previous year this century. Nineteen states have passed laws making it harder for citizens, especially the poor, to vote. And the free-market absolutists, since the ‘30s the unbridled foes of organized labor, targeted public employees: Within two months both Wisconsin and Ohio passed legislation that eliminated most of its state workers’ collective bargaining rights.
But there was a backlash. In a development that would foreshadow the larger Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged nationally several months later, huge protests, reaching as many as 30,000 participants, developed during the Wisconsin Legislature’s consideration of the bill, and included a several-week sit-in of the State Capitol building. In Ohio, more than 1.3 million signatures were collected on a petition that put Senate Bill 5 on the November ballot. The election was a landslide. Sixty-one percent of Ohioans voted to reject the law. The shelf-life of voter approval of Tea Party policy was notable, finally, for its brevity.
Ohio and Wisconsin are Obama’s firewall in 2012 because they acted as the canaries in the mine—and the mine was government by the Tea Party. To strip away rights goes beyond winning or losing in a negotiation. It is a form of humiliation. It is a way of telling a class or a category of people that they no longer count. It leaps the immediate and the material. It is about the worth of who you are. Oddly, in this election season we have heard the wails of hedge fund managers who feel disrespected, scapegoated, by Barack Obama. Yet the rather more humble plaints of Ohio have largely gone unheard. “Senate Bill 5 makes me feel like I did something wrong by becoming a public employee,” said Mahalia Woods, a corrections officer at Franklin Pre-Release Center. “Don’t make me the scapegoat for the problems of this economy.”
The larger Ohio public, the one that voted 61% to strike down Senate Bill 5, seemed to understand that after the canaries the rest of us get asphyxiated too. Perhaps that has been as well the lesson of Hurricane Sandy, and Obama’s positive movement in the polls this week. Rekindled was the unsavory memory of the deeply unpopular Bush administration—rarely if ever mentioned in the campaign. The contrast in competence and bipartisanship could barely have stood out in greater contrast to the tragic experience of Katrina. The politics in which Senate Bill 5 makes sense could just as soon dismantle FEMA—send its functions to the states, privatize it, depend on private charities. The feebleness of these solutions in the face of submerged New York City subway lines or the wreckage of the Jersey seashore: they weren’t canaries this time, but they could be next time.