By Sam Stein
Fresh off a narrow loss in his gubernatorial re-election campaign, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland on Wednesday offered some somber and sober-minded criticism for his own party and president.
Democrats suffer from an "intellectual elitism" that prevents them from adopting the type of populist tone to relate to voters, he said. And while President Obama had made a series of monumental legislative advancements -- any one of which would have been "historic" in its own right -- he fails to recognize that he is being "slapped in the face" by his Republican critics.
"I think there is a hesitancy to talk using populist language," the Ohio Democrat said in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post. "I think it has to do with a sort of intellectual elitism that considers that kind of talk is somehow lacking in sophistication. I'm not sure where it comes from. But I think it's there. There's an unwillingness to draw a line in the sand."
Attending the Democratic Governors Association for the last time as a sitting governor, Strickland did not name names with respect to who's guilty of elitism. If anything, he was deferential to the president, arguing that he is not getting the credit he deserves for rescuing the economy from a surefire second Depression.
But his frustration was evident as the discussion progressed. Talking, unprompted, about the debate over the expiring Bush tax cuts, Strickland said he was dumbfounded at the party's inability to sell the idea that the rates for the wealthy should be allowed to expire.
"I mean, if we can't win that argument we might as well just fold up," he said. "These people are saying we are going to insist on tax cuts for the richest people in the country and we don't care if they are paid for, and we don't think it is a problem if it contributes to the deficit, but we are not going to vote to extend unemployment benefits to working people if they aren't paid for because they contribute to the deficit. I mean, what is wrong with that? How can it be more clear?"
Addressing the president's self-analysis -- offered after a bipartisan meeting with congressional leadership on Tuesday -- that he hadn't done enough outreach to Republicans, the Ohio governor was equally blunt.
"I saw what CNN said after that meeting yesterday. A line saying the president said he should have been willing to work with the GOP earlier. What? After all of this you don't realize these people want to destroy you and your agenda?" he asked. "How many times do you have to be, you know, slapped in the face? Look what they did with health care.
"I mean, I understand a reluctance to reach the conclusion that I think a reasonable person can reach: that [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell was speaking the truth when he said his goal was not to govern, not to develop public policy, but his goal is to defeat this president in 2012. And I think when the base understands that that's what's at stake, the base is going to be much more willing to engage and to join the fight. The base is going to be less willing to join the fight if they don't see the clear differences. The differences are there, for God's sake."
Removed from a re-election contest and the trappings of public office, Strickland's candor is not entirely surprising. But for operatives in the party who have been making a similar argument both privately and in public for months, it will certainly be refreshing. If anything, a governor who ran a top-notch campaign, in a tough swing state -- only to lose by a narrow margin -- would have a sharper perspective than most about the problems afflicting Democrats. And while Strickland stressed that electoral politics was cyclical, that Democrats would reverse the trends of 2010, and that President Obama would "likely or "very possibly" win re-election, it would not first be without a bit of a course correction.
"It cuts your heart out," he said, of the party's inability to make a unified, principled case for their priorities. "People are willing to stand with you if they see you fighting for them. In Ohio, I didn't lose because so many Republicans came out to vote for [incoming Ohio Governor] John Kasich. He ended up with 49 percent of the vote. I lost because there was an enthusiasm gap and too many people who would have most likely voted for me did not vote."