29 March 2012

Romney's Election

Mitt Romney told a funny story the other day. His father, George Romney, ran for governor of Michigan in 1962. George was thought somewhat handicapped by his record as big boss of American Motors, in which capacity during the 1950s he shifted a lot of jobs out of Michigan and into Wisconsin. The story Mitt tells is of his father marching (or riding) in a parade with a marching band in front of him. Mitt remembers seeing George's operatives panicking as the band played "On, Wisconsin!" and trying to make them stop playing. The band didn't know how to play the Michigan fight song and the Wisconsin fight song was the only one they knew. The Romney people were obviously afraid that the Wisconsin song would remind voters that George had taken jobs away from Michigan. Mitt can laugh at the story because George won the election -- and it's objectively amusing from a cynical standpoint toward American elections. Democrats are laughing amongst themselves at, not with Romney while publicly condemning his inferred insensitivity to job loss -- but did you expect anything else? The real story may be whether any of his remaining rivals for the presidential nomination have targeted this joke for the sort of "populist" or "class warfare" criticism we were hearing a couple of months ago.

In any event, the story made me wonder how much those lost jobs may actually have factored in George Romney's gubernatorial campaign, so I did a Google News Archive search to see what I could find. I found a few hints that George's campaign in some ways anticipated his son's, in terms of the issues raised and people's perceptions of the candidate. Despite having taken jobs out of the state, George ran with a promise to create jobs in Michigan. He blamed the lack of job creation there under 16 years of Democratic governors on high taxes. Incumbent John Swainson was denounced for getting nothing done, but Swainson's Democratic defenders blamed that on the refusal of Republican legislators to cooperate with the governor. To an extent, George Romney ran a confrontational campaign against unions, but also hoped, apparently with good reason, to attract some union voters away from the Democrats. Contemporary reports note some popular dissatisfaction with unions' influence in politics, and under conditions of apparent stagnation many working-class voters were willing to believe that the stagnation was at least partly unions' fault.

Already by 1962, the likes of George Romney were seen as "liberal" Republicans, and Romney was at least moderate by comparison with the fast-rising Barry Goldwater and his supporters. "Liberal" and "moderate" are relative terms defined in context, and George Romney probably seemed no more moderate to many union people in Michigan than Mitt Romney does today. Founded as the party of "free labor," but with a founding ideology that implicitly disparaged the permanent wage worker, the Republican Party has been more hostile to organized labor historically than the Democratic Party has been as a rule, the difference growing more stark over the last century or so. Mitt Romney may seem more reactionary, more ideological than his father, but in some respects you could just as easily say, "like father, like son."

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