John Gilliom and I wrote the following editorial that appeared in The Chronicle Telegram and the Athens Messenger last week. Neither posted it on the internet, so here it is for those non-subscribers:
STAND DOWN, MR. GOVERNOR
John Gilliom and Kevin Mattson
While many prominent Democratic Party leaders have opted to stay neutral in the current battle between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is a fully committed partisan. Strickland has been on out-of-state campaign trips for Senator Clinton, headlined her campaign events in Ohio, appeared as a talk show surrogate, and coached Ohioans to vote early and vote Clinton. As state party chair Chris Redfern recently observed: “They are working very hard on her behalf.”
Like other Ohioans, we heaved a sigh of relief when Governor Strickland assumed office. Strickland has shown a commitment to good governance and honorable politics by calling for an end to the days of corrupt coin dealers, pay-to-play politics, and elections that only the winners could trust. And, as Democrats, we were delighted to see the party unified behind new and promising leadership.
But now Strickland’s partisanship is cause for concern. We see two obvious dangers. First, the potential leadership failure amid the likely difficulties of the coming March 4 primary election. Second, the already visible divisions and rancor within the state’s Democrats as many supporters of the Obama campaign watch their Governor step forward. Especially as the Clinton campaign appears increasingly bent on going negative.
Across the nation, this year’s Democratic primaries have drawn unprecedented levels of participation, with long voting lines and frequent ballot shortages. It seems assured that we’ll have a huge turnout in Ohio, especially since our primary could determine the national outcome. And no one should expect that March 4 will go smoothly; we expect huge numbers, the now-regular system failures, and almost inevitable frustration and acrimony.
With a deluge of voters – many of them new – we fear an election in which voters can’t vote due to new and unclear requirements on identification and voting procedures. We fear an election where insufficient staffing and equipment mean long delays and effective disenfranchisement. Things will probably go smoothly in high-income suburbs and thinly populated rural areas. But will the same thing happen in the urban and campus areas energized by the importance and potential of this year’s Democratic primary? We hope so, but our state’s precedents don’t make us optimistic.
Even if a primary election meltdown is avoided, the state needs a Governor who can serve as a leader and referee without appearing to be a committed player for one side. It may be too late—Strickland’s early public commitment has already raised concerns among some of the many Ohio Democrats who support Senator Obama. When the Governor turned his announcement about early voting into a campaign event for Team Clinton, there were inevitable memories of when state leaders tried to tip prior elections.
As Governor Strickland suggests that people go to the polls fast, he appears to want the ballots in the box before Ohioans have a full opportunity to meet the candidates. In so doing, he seeks to forestall the insurgency and energy that has mounted behind Obama’s campaign, driven as it is by small contributions as well as an appeal to Independents and a new generation who have come out to the polls in record numbers. The result is that the Governor’s simple message as a leader— vote early to help us have a successful election—is tainted and co-opted by his message as a Clinton advocate—vote early before Obama comes to Ohio.
Governor Strickland probably got into this mess because of the Clinton Campaign’s disastrous assumption that the race would be over on Super Tuesday. In that way of thinking, Ohio would be a mere rubber stamp during Senator Clinton’s post-game parade to the convention. And if that were the case, Governor Strickland’s partisanship would be barely noticed and quickly forgotten. But, as we all know, the situation has changed. Senator Obama is now winning in the polls, the popular vote, the fundraising, and the delegate counts. So now, surely to his dismay, the Governor finds himself stuck in one of the great political battles of the era, having pitted himself against large and crucial elements of his own political party.
It may be too late for Governor Strickland to become a “born-again” neutral player in the March 4 primary, but the best investment for the State of Ohio and all of Ohio’s Democrats would be for him to stand down from the Clinton Campaign and turn all of his attention working with his administration to run a clean and well-managed election day. The ingredients are in place for the great promise of this Governor to be sullied by what increasingly appears to be a bad and unwise bet in the great game of politics.
John Gilliom is Chair of the Political Science Department and Kevin Mattson is the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University.