A Laurel to the Toledo Blade

Paper challenges Romney on his manufacturing message

OHIO — There’s a well-known truism that you can’t have it both ways. But that’s never stopped politicians, especially in the heat of a presidential campaign, from giving it a go.

And when they do, it’s the job of the press to call them out. That’s just what The Blade of Toledo did this week, when GOP candidate Mitt Romney made a stop at a Toledo manufacturing plant on Wednesday.

The article, by Tony Cook with contributions from Jim Provance, the paper’s Columbus bureau chief, notes that the Romney campaign selected the home of steel distributor Universal Metals as the site for a stump speech about job creation. It was a logical choice: after all, Romney has begun to sharpen his message on the importance of manufacturing, with an eye to the Ohio primary next Tuesday.

The Blade story gives Romney a chance to communicate that message, which involves taking steps the Obama administration hasn’t to retaliate for Chinese currency manipulation. (American Posts, a subsidiary of Universal Metals, makes fence posts, and is apparently one of the few domestic manufacturers to survive in the face of Chinese competition.) And it notes that his message finds a supporter in William Feniger, the president of Universal Metals.

But the article also immediately points out an incongruity in Romney’s choice of venue, even as it paints the factory scene with hulking coils of steel and 300 safety-glass-wearing workers looking on:

But the North Toledo steel distributor also highlights an irony in Mr. Romney’s campaign message, because Universal Metals has benefited heavily from the federal government’s bailout of the auto industry, which Mr. Romney opposed.

That opposition, the Blade notes, wasn’t mentioned in Romney’s stump speech. But Cook’s article recalls Romney’s 2008 anti-bailout op-ed in The New York Times, which ran under the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” And it explains not just how that history might pose political problems for Romney, but how the bailout complicates his current claims. An interview with Feniger, the Romney-supporting company president, is key:

The North Toledo company Mr. Romney wanted to highlight as a beneficiary of his policies is a prime example. Universal Metals would be much different today without the bailout of the auto industry.

“I have mixed emotions about it,” Mr. Feniger, the company’s president, said when asked about Mr. Romney’s opposition to the bailout. “Obviously, it has proven to be successful to this point. I’m not totally sure I agree it was the right thing to do, but it’s hard for me to argue. I’m obviously benefiting from it.”

That kind of statement contradicts one of Mr. Romney’s core messages regarding Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy. If voters are seeing economic improvements, it’s “not because of him, but in spite of him,” Mr. Romney said Wednesday.

It was a good catch, one not made by other Ohio outlets whose coverage simply noted the Toledo visit and Romney’s re-energized focus on jobs and the economy. (In fairness, this was a hometown story for The Blade; none of the other reports bore a Toledo dateline.)

One quibble with the Blade’s story: it doesn’t offer a full explanation about how the auto bailout benefited Universal Metals. In a phone interview, Cook, a general assignment reporter, said he relied on information from Feniger that the company provides steel to the auto industry. That’s something a reader could infer—and Feniger’s quote about the company benefiting is clear—but it could have been spelled out a bit more.

Cook also discussed the hurdles reporters face when covering fast-moving campaigns in which the candidates may make several Ohio stops in a day. “It’s definitely a challenge to rise above that and look at the campaign from a broader perspective,” he said. “And it’s important for reporters to try and do that.”

Indeed. Here, the Blade delivered a good example of tough, local political coverage that takes that broader look—by pushing beyond the candidate’s message of the day, and asking questions that challenge the campaign rhetoric.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.