Let us contemplate the joys of being in the political opposition when unemployment in your state tops 10 percent. Kevin DeWine, the affable chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio, has a transparent board behind his desk at state headquarters where he scribbles reminders to himself. A permanent fixture is this list of words: "Spending, taxes, jobs, economy, deficit, debt." DeWine says he keeps the issues inventory as a reminder to all of his party's candidates. "If they are not talking about these things," he says, "they are off-message."
And his candidates seem to listen. Republican Steve Stivers is in a rematch with Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, one of those endangered-but-still-gutsy Democrats who won't back down from her support for the new health-care law, financial reform or the stimulus. Among the first words out of Stivers's mouth when I chatted with him over the phone were "the debt and jobs," followed quickly by "unemployment" and "big spending."
Thus the key question as the 2010 campaign enters its final days: Is there anything Democrats can do to shake the GOP off its relentlessly effective focus on a handful of themes? These seem to resonate with voters without actually solving any problems. So far, the Republicans have not even been forced to explain how their promises add up. Between now and November 2, will they get away with offering tax cuts and a reduction in the deficit without specifying what spending they would eliminate or trim?
In the meantime, Democrats have left loyalists such as Kilroy, who deserve better, without the support of a driving national message. There is no Democratic counterpart to Kevin DeWine's handy list. For her part, Kilroy doesn't whine. She's not the type. In defending health-care reform, she cites actual constituents the law has directly assisted. In a nation where some 50 million lack health coverage, Kilroy says, she is proud to have kept her promise from two years ago to take steps to solve the problem.
But she is also thoroughly realistic about the extent to which joblessness has created a double-whammy for Democratic candidates. On the right, she says, "the voters who are worried about change are worried because they don't have a job." And on the left, "the ones who are worried because change hasn't been fast enough are worried because they don't have a job." Kilroy recalls encountering a voter who told her: "I've voted for you throughout your career, but I'm not voting for you this year because I don't have a job." She spoke to her constituent about what Congress had accomplished, and also about how the tied-up-in-knots U.S. Senate had blocked other House initiatives. To which the voter replied: "Do you think I care they're stuck in the Senate? I don't have a job."
Stivers, who lost to Kilroy in 2008 by just 2,312 votes, has had much happier doorstep experiences. "People were mad at George Bush two years ago and they were going to take it out on anyone with an 'R' after their name," he said. This time, they're eager to talk about—you guessed it—"the debt and jobs."
What Kilroy has going for her is the determination of Gov. Ted Strickland to get re-elected and the best-organized state Democratic Party in the nation. Its headquarters in a renovated former Salvation Army building here hums with activity, looking more like a national party command center than the typical ramshackle state party office.
While Strickland trails Republican John Kasich in public polls, he narrowly leads in his own surveys and hopes to overcome the enthusiasm gap with organizational energy. President Barack Obama sees Ohio as a firewall in his 2012 re-election effort, and having a friendly governor would be a major asset. Obama's visit here on Sunday, which drew a crowd of 35,000, was an exercise in firewall-building.
Kilroy, however, could still use the firewall of a simple, coherent national argument. Many of the Democrats' political consultants warned of the dangers of "nationalizing" the election and preferred a race-by-race focus.
But guess what? This already is a nationalized election. Kevin DeWine's list is the GOP's template. Over the coming week and a half, the president and his party need a few good words of their own. That's the least they owe Kilroy and those like her who were willing to risk their political lives to keep their promises—and his.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).