On a recent Ohio evening the air was thick with what some might call politics. More reasonable people would call it bullshit. But when you’re dealing with American politics at its most mediacentric level, there is no reason.
Inside a 900-seat theater across the street from Ohio’s Statehouse, pugnacious Republican Governor John Kasich was conducting a televised “town hall” to unveil—ta dah!—a conservative austerity budget. Sounds good, no? A nice old-fashioned town hall full of folks from the heartland. Are you thinking little Vermont in the Rust Belt? Ha! Hardly. This event was a completely stage-managed, scripted, invite-only Republican show that would have made Karl Rove proud. Consider the courteous standing ovation from the crowd when Kasich took the stage.
“You obviously haven’t seen the budget yet,” Kasich joked as the audience settled back into their seats. “That could be the last standing ovation I ever get.”
Delightful! Another round of enthusiastic golf claps and polite giggles for the governor of Ohio, whose 40-percent approval rating is the lowest in twenty-eight years for somebody in office less than two months.
Nearly everyone was in business attire and looked as if they’d come to the theater directly from whatever Columbus’s equivalent is to Washington’s K Street—lobbyists, pols and corporate execs happy to be in each other’s nonconfrontational company. The whole event smacked of people in power talking to people in power about what they would be doing to the people not in power.
As the TV cameras blinked live, the stage didn’t even have the requisite “coalition” of diverse groups, no members of the small-business community, no token minorities, not a single strong-jawed fireman, nary a female voter who is “concerned” or in a league of any kind. This much, at least, you can expect from a Democratic-produced piece of political theater. Instead, there was just an enormous blue PowerPoint projection that outlined Kasich’s “reform-oriented budget”—an overall double-digit cut in public school funding, decreased Medicaid reimbursement payments to hospitals, and a reduction of funding to local townships by 25 percent in two years. In other words, what has now become standard GOP statehouse fare.
Kasich announced the budgets cuts in a cheery, upbeat manner, the way Steve Jobs would introduce a cute new iSomething to his loyal employees and fanaticized clients. The governor kept returning to his main point of pride: the preservation of an $800 million income tax cut for you-know-who. Now that’s something these townies could relate to, because it affects them personally and positively. A nice trade-off for the pain to be inflicted on those outside the doors. The rest of the event remained eerily sterile. No dissenting protesters as we saw in unruly Wisconsin or even staged questioning voices to create the pretense, at least, of an opinionated community. And certainly no apologies from the dais.
Rather than tell the crowd that times are tough or that the job of a policymaker is to choose the least-worst policy, a common trope associated with social services defunding, all this news was delivered with a relentless sense of optimism. Hey, it’s great to be cutting!
I confess, it was at this moment that I felt a nostalgic twinge for the tea partiers I met in Nevada during last year’s Senate race between the limp Harry Reid and the wacky Sharron Angle.
What can’t be denied about tea partiers is their hostility toward the Republican establishment, which is exactly who I was seated among at Kasich’s phony town hall. In lieu of better allies, I would have settled for a deranged dude in a three-corner hat popping in and yelling out at Kasich about the 17th Amendment or something.
How this homogenized crud being peddled by the Kasich types passes for populism is something beyond me. Worse, the only effective, agenda-setting populist outrage we’ve seen in the past two years has come from the tea people. Progressives could learn some lessons from their anger.
And as Kasich’s evening budget show drew to a close, all I could think was that the screwballs in the tea party are at least emotionally resonant with this dangerously dramatic moment in our history. Somehow, it is more reassuring to be among them then adrift with this the sea of bobbling Babbit heads nodding in somnolent compliance with their mediocre and dull Governor Kasich.
Vargas-Cooper is on assignment in the Midwest for Slake: Los Angeles, and is writing a longer narrative on the Wisconsin labor fight for Slake No. 3. Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp through 1960s America. She is the Los Angeles correspondent for The Awl and writes for The Atlantic and other publications.
Photo by Vargas-Cooper
In Praise of War
Mar 18, 12:26 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
All rights reserved, Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Slake Media.
Do not reproduce without permission.