Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave the most memorably stupid speech at the Democratic convention. He savaged Mitt Romney as a plutocrat eager to dispossess the American worker and unloosed the groan-inducing line: “If Mitt was Santa Claus, he'd fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.”
Strickland's content? Indefensible. His tone? Rancid. His political instincts? Shrewd. If President Barack Obama wins Ohio and a second term, he will have Ted Strickland's message to thank.
Strickland lost in his 2010 re-election bid to John Kasich, but not for a lack of witless populism. As governor of a state with over 9 percent unemployment, Strickland knew the formula that President Obama came to appreciate: If you can't defend your record, trash the other guy as a cartoonish corporate stooge.
Kasich had a stint at the now-defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers, so Strickland called him “Wall Street to the core.” He accused Kasich of trying to privatize Social Security as a congressman to serve Lehman's interests, then getting rewarded with a job. “I didn't learn my values from modern-day robber barons,” Strickland boasted.
Not subtle, but not ineffective. Strickland outperformed Democrats nationally among white working-class voters. In a smart analysis at the time for The New Republic, Noam Scheiber praised the political potential of this “aggressive populism,” while warning it “can be crude, ugly and conspiratorial.”
That pretty much encapsulates the Obama campaign's economic case to the heartland, which is pure Stricklandism with a big dollop of the auto bailouts.
The “economic patriotism” the governor bellowed about at the convention is on the cover of the pamphlet outlining the president's purported second-term agenda. An Obama super PAC ad accusing Bain Capital of shipping jobs to China is titled, unbelievably, “Mitt Romney: Economic Traitor.”
If the president were a Republican, the press would faint over his “economic McCarthyism.” The world being what it is, Democrats can call Romney the economic equivalent of the Rosenbergs and no one minds.