Watching Ohio

Posted: Mar 26, 2006 12:05 AM

CLEVELAND -- In the central Ohio town of London, an independent pharmacy was absorbed by a national chain because, says Rep. Sherrod Brown, the pharmacy could not afford the staff needed to decipher for customers the new prescription drug entitlement that Brown voted against because the Bush administration ``let the drug companies write it." Brown, whose district is in the western portion of the Cleveland-Akron-Canton metropolitan area where nearly one-third of Ohio voters live, voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq, against the Bush tax cuts, against drilling in ANWR, and against school choice for 2,700 District of Columbia children. If Democrats are to recapture the Senate this year, Brown probably must defeat Sen. Mike DeWine in this state that secured President Bush's re-election when, late on election night, it turned red.
  Brown, a political lifer, was elected to the state Legislature a year after graduating from Yale. He ran statewide at age 29, becoming secretary of state, and has been elected to the U.S. House seven times. DeWine, after four terms in the House, won a Senate seat in a Republican's dream year, 1994. But now fate has dealt him a ghastly hand.

     Senators seeking a third term have 12 years of Senate votes to justify to voters. DeWine is seeking a third term in an inhospitable environment -- the middle of the second term of an incumbent president of his own party. That is when the electorate often experiences ``the six-year itch," the desire to reshuffle the political deck. A recent national ``generic" poll -- do voters generally prefer to vote for a Democrat or Republican for Congress? -- found a staggering 16-point advantage for the Democrats. The redistricting done for incumbent-protection after the 2000  Census may have made the House almost impervious to the itch -- nationally, at most 35 of 435 House races are currently considered competitive -- so voters might vent their restlessness in Senate elections. And ``restless" hardly describes Ohio's dyspeptic mood regarding its Republicans, who hold all statewide offices. Scandals and tax increases drove Gov. Bob Taft's approval rating in one poll to six. He has bounced all the way back to 16. Richard Nixon's job approval rating was 24 on the eve of his resignation.

     Republicans, who revere markets, should fear that the political market is working in some states -- that Democrats are adapting to market signals. In Pennsylvania, the Democrats' likely Senate candidate, Bob Casey, is pro-life, and currently has a 10-point lead over Sen. Rick Santorum, who is seeking a third term.

           Brown, whose career voting record is, according to the American Conservative Union, more liberal than another Cleveland area congressman, Dennis Kucinich, makes scant concession to conservatism, cultural or economic. He opposes bans on same sex marriage (DeWine also opposed the ban that Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed in 2004), human cloning and partial-birth abortion. But he does favor a line-item veto and a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. That amendment, which would constitutionalize fiscal policy, is a terrible idea but a convenient gesture by Brown, who knows it is going nowhere. Besides, in 1992 his district was one of the nation's strongest for Ross Perot, giving him 27 percent.

     Brown is a harbinger of a momentous, and ominous, aspect of the 2008 presidential election: For the first time in living memory, one of the major parties -- Brown's -- will be essentially hostile to free trade, the foundation of today's prosperity. The Democratic Party's protectionism operates under the dissimulating label of ``fair trade."

      A serious student of trade policy, Brown notes that the trade deficit for all of 1992 was $39 billion, but was $724 billion last year and $68 billion just for January 2006. He wants U.S. trade policy to force ``stronger labor and environmental standards" in less-developed nations. He says the point is to ``bring up their living standards." Oh, please. The primary point is to reduce the competitive advantages of nations with lower labor costs and lighter environmental regulations -- nations that many Ohioans believe have caused their state to lose 222,800 manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years.

     DeWine, one of only four senators who supported John McCain in 2000, is a moderate conservative with an independent streak -- for example, he has repeatedly voted against drilling in ANWR. This may be enough to annoy some conservatives without being sufficient to distance him from the state Republican shambles. We shall find out late on Election Night when, as usual, the nation will be watching Ohio.