By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Coming off of a campaign-saving victory in New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) went to Michigan last week to dispense a bit of what he called his "straight talk": Some of those manufacturing jobs that built the state into an economic power, then left it mired in recession, would not magically reappear.
There was more to McCain's point, of course -- an extended proposal to bolster job training, even a plan for the federal government to pick up the difference between workers' old, high-wage jobs and the new, lower-wage jobs they are falling into. But McCain had given former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney an opening, and Romney pounced.
In the days following McCain's comment, Romney portrayed himself as the champion of Michigan and its faltering economic engine, reminding voters that he was the only GOP candidate "that's got the automobile industry in my blood veins."
It is hard to overstate the economic malaise afflicting Michigan, and Romney, perhaps more than any other Republican, grasped that when he decried a "one-state recession." At 7.4 percent, Michigan's unemployment rate remains the nation's highest by far (second place goes to Alaska at 6.4 percent). In the last year, while most states were adding payroll positions, Michigan lost 76,500 jobs, according to the Labor Department.
To McCain aides, the senator's statement in last week's Republican debate was the obvious truth. "Let's have a little straight talk," McCain said. "There are some jobs that aren't coming back to Michigan." Even Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), a strong Romney backer, acknowledged last night that some of Michigan's manufacturing jobs cannot be saved.
But to Romney campaign advisers, McCain's statement was akin to Michael Dukakis suggesting that Iowa farmers give up on corn and start growing Belgian endive or Gerald Ford telling New Yorkers, as the New York Daily News famously interpreted it, "Drop Dead."
Reveling in last night's victory, Romney advisers said a message the governor had been hammering for months finally broke through -- in part because people in Michigan were anxious to hear his can-do message on jobs and the economy, in part because McCain sent a rhetorical softball over the fat part of Romney's plate at a debate in South Carolina last week.
For days on end, Romney portrayed McCain as a dour pessimist who had given up on benighted Michigan while he, the successful business executive, was going to make Michigan's lost jobs a singular focus of his administration.
"Ours was a vision of optimism, of hope. His was gloom," said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and senior Romney strategist.
That fed into the image Romney has been trying to establish in voters' minds for months, a successful businessman and a proven governor ready to use his real-world experience as a turnaround artist to tackle the nation's toughest problems.
"We said that we were going to take innovation and change to Washington, recognizing that there's no way that an insider in Washington is going to turn Washington inside out," Romney told supporters last night. "American voters said that knowing how America works is more important than knowing how Washington works."
McCain aides shrugged off the loss last night, suggesting it would soon be forgotten after South Carolina Republicans go to the polls on Saturday. Mark Salter, a senior McCain adviser, said Romney's performance in Michigan could be turned against him.
"The great vulnerability of Romney that's taking hold across the nation is that he will say anything to get himself elected," Salter said. "This will be one more item to add to the list for Romney's strategic plan to tell voters whatever the polls tell him to say."
Democratic White House hopefuls have responded to job anxieties with specific and pricey pledges to secure immediate, one-time tax cuts, extend unemployment insurance, address the subprime housing crisis, and send billions of federal dollars to the states to stave off counterproductive state and local program cuts or tax increases. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee on Monday trotted out more general pledges to negotiate with subprime mortgage lenders and prime the economy with government spending on defense industries, infrastructure and energy technologies.
Romney responded not so much with a program but with an image: of Mr. Fix-It.
"The governor has been on a message for a while now that the key to this election is that Washington is broken, and it's got to be fixed," said Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser. "And the key to that message turned out to be in Michigan. Michigan became a very good place for the governor to say, 'This is what my presidency is all about. Look at the problems in Michigan. Washington is not only not fixing it. It's made it worse.' "
Romney supporters now hope the same economic anxieties that made Michigan Republicans responsive to that message will surface throughout a nation already feeling the leading edge of an economic slowdown.
McCain aides said their candidate would stick to his message on the economy and avoid short-term fixes, no matter how appealing they may be on the campaign trail.
"We have no cause to be discouraged or to second guess what we might have done differently," McCain told supporters last night. "We did what we always try to do: We went to Michigan and told people the truth. I am as committed now as I have ever been to making sure that no state, whether it's Michigan or South Carolina or anywhere in this blessed country, is left behind in the global economy. But that global economy is here to stay, and it is, by its nature, constantly changing. To compete more successfully in it, we must better prepare American workers and students to seize its opportunities."