The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hicks and Hardhats

So Much for the Hope of “Grass Roots” Conservative Governance

A few embarrassing bumps were felt last week in the GOP’s anticipated return to power after the November midterm elections. The Tea Party and other conservative grassroots initiatives have many Republicans boasting the American Heartland is returning to them after flirting with Democratic progressivism. Republicans tout themselves as the Party most aligned with the values and concerns of these “everyday, ordinary Americans,” the ones who best understand their current pain.

West Virginia "Hicks" in Raese's
Senatorial ad

Yet when it comes to finding spokespeople to endorse them, it appears as though the GOP is more comfortable with Hollywood than Heartland. Two Republican candidates got into hot water when Democrats learned paid actors represented constituents in Republican ads. There is nothing new about using actors to play voters in political ads. The chagrin came when details emerged about the qualities Republicans and their advertisers accepted and even looked for when portraying the everyday Americans with which they boasted such empathy and understanding.

The first incident surfaced in West Virginia, where Democratic Governor Joe Manchin is running an unexpectedly close race against Republican industrialist John Raese for the late Robert Byrd’s Senate seat. A seeming disconnect between Raese and the state he hopes to represent is Manchin’s most effective argument. Although Raese maintains a residence in West Virginia, the New York Times reports he has at least three homes across the U.S. and his wife lives primarily at the couple’s Palm Beach home.

Raese decided to hit back by tying Manchin to President Obama, who is extremely unpopular in the state. The result was an ad appearing to feature three rural West Virginian voters sitting in a diner. The men agree Manchin did okay as Governor but needed to be kept home and away from Washington, so he will not succumb to Obama’s bad influence.

Raese’s problems began when Democrats learned the three natives depicted in the ad were not natives at all but professional actors. The ad’s true location was not in West Virginia but Philadelphia. The truly damning part, however, came from the wording used in the casting call. “We are going for a ‘Hicky’ blue collar look,” it read. “Think coal miner/trucker looks.”

Manchin was quick to jump on the blunder, calling on Raese to apologize. “John Raese and his special interest friends have insulted the people of West Virginia and need to immediately apologize,” he said in a statement. “Not only have they been spending millions to try and buy this election with lies and distortions, we can now see once and for all what he and his friends really think of West Virginia and our people.”

Both Raese and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) reacted angrily, accusing Manchin of being far phonier in his stated political views than actors in a commercial. However, action often proves more telling than words and the NRSC has already pulled the ad.

The second embarrassment came in my home state of Ohio, where John Kasich, a former U.S. Representative and FOX News Channel commentator, had been enjoying a sizable lead as the Republican candidate for Governor over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland. Kasich’s chief advantage has been Ohio’s dismal economy during Strickland’s four-year term, with unemployment above the national average.

Ohio "Steelworker" in Kasich's
Gubernatorial ad
Strickland cut into this lead of late by playing up Kasich’s connection to Lehman Brothers. Kasich served as a Managing Director within the failed financial giant’s Investment Banking division from 2001 until the firm’s collapse in 2008. He even went so far as to pitch Lehman personally to the Ohio State Pension Fund Board, although his solicitation went thankfully unheeded.

Kasich retaliated by hitting Strickland once more over the economy and unemployment. His team created an ad featuring what appears to be an Ohio steelworker or blue collar factory worker of some type. The worker wears a plaid flannel work shirt and holds a hardhat in his hands. He appears to be standing in a dark, closed, and deserted factory. After noting the exodus of jobs during the past four years, the worker then charges, “Strickland destroyed Ohio jobs when he busted the budget and raised our taxes to help pay for his mistakes.”

The ad appeared effective at first glance but then it surfaced that, as in the West Virginia case, the spokesperson was not an actual Ohio blue collar worker but a Florida actor, named Chip Redden. Even worse, a normally right-leaning Ohio blog, operated by Matt Naugle, tore into Kasich because the actor in question had a “colorful” past, consisting of appearances in a Girls Gone Wild-style sex videotape and a string of felony and misdemeanor charges, including battery.

The Kasich campaign defended itself, saying the ad never identifies the actor as a steelworker but rather representative of all unemployed Ohioans. It points to the common use of actors in political ads. “This is being attacked because they don’t like the message. So [they] kill the messenger,” said Kasich Press Secretary Rob Nichols.

However, Democrats have successfully pounced on the revelation and exploited it. “The majority of our workforce, they’re well acquainted with Governor Strickland because he's been here for us. He wouldn't have to pay us to speak on his behalf like apparently Kasich needs to pay people to speak on his behalf,” said Scott Rich, president of steelworkers IAM Local 1943 in Middletown Ohio.

“When we saw Congressman Kasich’s ad, we wondered why any Ohio steelworker, whose job has been threatened by the unfair trade deals Kasich supported in Congress, would be willing to appear in his commercials,” agreed USW Local 1238's John Saunders. “As it turns out, when Congressman Kasich couldn’t get a real steelworker to do his dirty work, he did what any Congressman from Wall Street
would do – he paid someone.”

Strickland’s campaign notes he has never hired an actor for an ad. State Democrats smirk that despite all his talk about creating Ohio jobs, the only job Kasich has created so far is for one Florida ex-con.

Even before the disclosure, the Columbus Dispatch took the ad to task for playing loose with the facts. The claim that Strickland “raised taxes” comes from a proposed delay of the final four percent cut in a five year, twenty-one percent state income tax cut passed in 2005. Strickland proposed the delay to close an $851 million hole in the current two-year budget, created when a plan to add video slot machines at Ohio horseracing tracks fell through. The Republican-controlled Ohio Senate approved the delay.

Likewise, the Dispatch is skeptical about claims of Strickland “busting the budget.” It feels the deficit’s main source was lack of revenues, resulting from the 2005 GOP tax cut mentioned earlier. It goes on to explain, “The suggestion here seems to be that Strickland raised taxes instead of cutting spending or choosing a better option. But Strickland whacked the state payroll by more than five thousand jobs and did cut state spending for the first time in several decades.”

Finally, the claim that Strickland “destroyed Ohio jobs” also fails to hold water. Even if the tax cut delay is a tax increase, as Kasich insists, Ohio actually added over thirty-two thousand jobs since its passage.

Kasich characterized Democratic complaints about this ad as “whining” but he has lost the battle over it. His campaign announced the commercial is set to stop running “very soon.”

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama angered many rural and blue collar voters in places like Ohio and West Virginia when he told supporters at a dinner in San Francisco that working-class voters, frustrated over economic conditions, “. . . cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

In the end, Obama was attempting to explain America’s Heartland to liberal urban voters – it was an insightful gesture of empathy, albeit a cavalier one. Yet if this is frustrating from Democrats, what should these same voters make of a Party that treats them as manipulable hicks and hardhats, best portrayed by actors manifesting clichéd and insulting stereotypes?

There is real anger throughout the country over a bad economy and slow recovery. As the Party in power, Democrats will suffer losses, perhaps overwhelming losses, in Congress these midterm elections. Likewise, the conservative groundswell this election is genuine and grass roots in nature. Apparently, the same cannot be said for the vast majority of Republican candidates it is about to sweep into power – indeed, quite the reverse.

1 comment:

Isonomist said...

The Dems are taking the right tack with these Republican ads, but I wish they'd take the job situation head on. They could easily kill several birds with one stone by coming out for a tax break for US hires. Then they can say they're championing lower taxes, lower unemployment, in-sourcing, small business, corporations and the American worker all at once. And they could leave it on the flagpole even if it never passes and not a single job is created.