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Tom Perriello: Offering wonky dives into facts to voters

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RICHMOND — In a cozy, wood-paneled meeting room on the campus of the University of Richmond, Democrat Tom Perriello, the former congressman from the Charlottesville area, was trying to put his brand of “conviction politics” to new use.

Perriello, 38, who lost his seat after a single term in the Republican wave of 2010, has been at the helm of the political arm of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress for nearly a year. He has been traveling through the battlegrounds of the 2012 presidential election offering what he believes voters everywhere pine for in this era of stump-speech zingers and 30-second attack ads: deep, wonky dives into the facts behind the issues.

On this recent day at the University of Richmond, 12 students sat listening to his spiel.

“My job is to not even be remotely interesting,” Perriello told the group, brandishing a flip-chart marker and walking his audience through Romney’s tax cut proposals. “We are actually trying to show that people care enough about facts and information, that geeking out a little bit and going through some graphs and some numbers on some flip charts — that there really are a lot of voters in your dorm rooms, on campus, in your neighborhoods, who want to know the facts behind the facts.”

In fairness to Perriello, he’s garnered far larger audiences in other battlegrounds — notably Ohio, where his “True Cost of Romney” tour has focused heavily on explaining (and criticizing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s opposition to) the federal bailout of the auto industry. During a two-day blitz across Ohio last month, Perriello reached thousands of Ohioans by appearing on local public-policy shows, sitting for radio interviews and meeting with the editorial boards at four newspapers.

This week, Perriello dialed into an Ohio news conference to talk about Romney’s new effort to discredit the automakers bailout by suggesting — inaccurately, according to Perriello, auto executives and most fact-checkers — that bailout money helped both Chrysler and General Motors move American jobs to China.

Perriello doesn’t shy away from zingers — he called Romney’s latest strategy “crass and craven” and accused him of outright dishonesty. “It’s starting to be a disqualifying factor when people don’t feel like they can believe what comes out of his mouth,” he said. But those lines come after a wonky explanation of what was wrong with Romney’s view that the federal government shouldn’t have loaned money to the car companies — that they should have had to go to the private markets for the capital they needed to stay afloat.

Perriello is not exclusively toiling in obscurity. This week, the Obama campaign debuted a TV ad in Ohio based on the Center for American Progress’s Ohio research.

Perriello, the Center for American Progress and the left in general are certainly not the only entities trying to inject policy into the increasingly depth-free domain of American political discourse. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has helped sponsor a “Values Bus” that is touring the nation in part to make the case — like Perriello, with math and flip charts and facts and figures — for cutting federal spending to lower deficit spending and the national debt.

Perriello is a deep admirer of President Obama: In an anti-Obama election year, he gladly appeared with the president in 2010 a few days before his defeat.

In Obama’s support for the bailouts, in his demand for tougher Wall Street regulations, even in his investments in wind energy, Perriello sees a grander philosophy — a role for government in keeping manufacturing and agriculture strong — and a mandate to protect and strengthen a middle class that Perriello believes drives, rather than results from, a humming economy. The 2012 election, Perriello believes, is a referendum on that philosophy. And that’s what led him to his latest adventure.

Perriello’s gig at the Center for American Progress has in some ways served as the perfect landing pad for his brand of conviction politics — the view that taking the right positions is more important than taking politically popular positions. The right positions can become popular, the thinking goes, with facts and education.

The philosophy didn’t work out so well for Perriello in Congress, where his votes on carbon-emissions limits (cap and trade) and the health-care law helped fuel his defeat (although he would quibble with that premise, since he lost by only four percentage points in a deeply Republican district).

But it is perfectly suited, he argues, to his new road show.

“How large is the tax cut that Mitt Romney has proposed?” Perriello, sporting jeans and his shirt sleeves rolled up, asked the roomful of students in Richmond while drawing squares representing federal expenditures on the flip chart. “Anyone have a figure on this?”

There weren’t enough people in the room for the question to elicit more than a quiet murmur. It didn’t matter. Perriello jumped on the timid response and continued with his spiel.

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