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Carney: Can Romney out-Santa Claus Obama in Ohio?

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

FAYETTE, Ohio - "They say everything's worse now than it was then," Tom Franks said Tuesday morning, standing in the back doorway of D & R Hardware in Fayette. But Franks, who has been a maintenance man at Fayette High School since he was laid off from auto factory work, doesn't see it that way. Obama's "helping Chrysler and GM out -- it's brought jobs into the Toledo area."

That's exactly the case Obama was making just outside of Toledo on Wednesday. "I said, 'I'm betting on America. I'm betting on American workers,' " Obama pronounced to cheers in Bowling Green, Ohio. "I'm betting on American industry. And today, the American auto industry has come roaring back" with hundreds of thousands of jobs saved by his 2009 auto bailout.

As Obama posts big leads in Ohio polls this week, that argument seems to be working. Fifty-eight percent of respondents in an Ohio Newspaper poll supported Obama's auto bailouts. A Washington Post poll this week found 54 percent of likely Ohio voters approved of the way Obama is handling the economy. Most Ohioans seem to think Obama's Big Government-Big Business collusion has helped them.

"That's bulls--t," says conservative publisher Thomas Pounds sitting at the bar at the Blarney Irish Pub in Toledo.

Toledo Transmission is the most productive rear-wheel-drive transmission plant in North America, according to General Motors. Had Obama not saved GM in 2009, Pounds argued Tuesday at the bar, this productive plant would not have been bulldozed. Someone would have bought it up -- maybe a splintered-off piece of GM, maybe Toyota, maybe an independent transmission supplier. This is bankruptcy: Failed companies sell valuable assets to those who can make use of their value better than the old owner did.

Romney and Ryan, like Pounds, could go on about opportunity costs and what could have arisen had GM been allowed to fail. But these dissertations won't take in Toledo. When politicians start throwing conditionals and complexities into their explanations, voters -- with good reason -- assume they are being swindled.

The auto bailout plays to the Democrats' advantage because Republicans are left with a complex argument about unseen costs while Democrats have simple argument about visible benefits.

So Obama, like FDR in 1936, is running around the country pointing to his bailouts, handouts, subsidized windmill factories and targeted tax cuts. Instead of Air Force One, he should be flying a reindeer-drawn sleigh.

How do you run against Santa Claus?

For one thing, you appeal to the small-business owner.

"What the hell has he done for me?" Dale Pfund asks me when I mention Obama. Pfund and his wife, Robin, own D & R Hardware. "What the hell has he done for any small-businessman?"

Pfund laments that "regulations are killing us" and points to the huge overhead costs of mandatory workers' compensation and payroll taxes.

"He's all about the union vote," Pfund adds about Obama. "He doesn't care about the little guy."

Pfund provides a hint for running against Obamanomics: Attack cronyism.

Romney hit this theme in Vandalia, Ohio, on Tuesday. He spoke of $90 billion Obama gave to "companies that in many cases were owned by campaign contributors of his." Romney attacked the notion of "picking winners and losers" and said government intervention is "making it harder and harder for small businesses to survive."

This has a broad appeal, mostly among small-business owners who can't afford lobbyists. Romney polls above 60 percent among small-business owners, according to Manta, a business research firm. But for every Thomas Pounds and Dale and Robin Pfund, there are hundreds of workers who don't own a business.

How do Romney and Ryan try to win them over? Perversely, by knocking Obama for the goodies he has failed to deliver. Outside a tank factory in Lima on Monday, Ryan attacked Obama for "propos[ing] again and again to shut down" the plant.

"We're not going to shut down the only tank plant we have in America over a budget gimmick," Ryan said to applause. But the Pentagon wants this government-owned tank plant shuttered because the military has enough tanks.

Should government really keep open a tank factory to save tank-making jobs in Ohio? Along the same lines, should Obama really be faulted for not bailing out the GM factory in Janesville, Wis., which Ryan mourned in his convention speech?

If Republicans can't get enough mileage on the cronyism attack, will they be reduced to trying to out-Santa Claus Obama?

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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