MANCHESTER, N.H. — At Victory Park in this gritty mill town, hours before a recent high-profile Republican presidential event, no one was basking in victory.
“If you have a homeless shelter address, you can forget about getting a job,” said Sandra Austin, 33, one of six homeless people who sat on the steps of a World War II monument. “There are lots of people like me in Manchester, who have no chance.
“I’m worried about Medicaid cuts, mental health care,” she said. “What about the veterans who are coming back home? They need help and they aren’t getting it.”
On the other side of the monument, students from a local art college doodled chalk masterpieces on the sidewalk. They said they can’t find part-time jobs to help them pay for textbooks, let alone full-time jobs after graduation that would allow them to pay off six-figure student loans.
“It doesn’t seem like anyone graduating from our school is getting jobs,” said Jeston Rodriguez, 19. “It’s a real mess.”
Answers to such real-world concerns were absent that evening from a “summit on spending and job creation” down the street among GOP presidential hopefuls. The event was sponsored by the free-market group Americans for Prosperity and funded by the Koch brothers, the billionaire oil barons who bankroll a variety of right-wing, anti-environmental, and anti-labor initiatives.
I sat at a table headed by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and listened to a viciously gloomy assessment of our country’s affairs. As the C-SPAN cameras rolled, the candidates strode aggressively to the podium and stood next to a six-foot-long axe that seemed to signify something about chopping.
The 500 or so New Hampshire party activists who paid $50 a head to attend feasted on red meat served up by the speakers, who unanimously blamed our sorry state of affairs on President Obama.
“Obama thinks you are stupid,” Sen. Santorum barked. His solutions included the need for more “simple bills.” He offered an example of such a bill he would propose with the tired refrain of: “Drill, baby, drill.”
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney backtracked on the health-care initiative his state enacted under his leadership. He spoke of the need to “hang” Mr. Obama, although he also backtracked on that edict 30 seconds later.
Mr. Romney did announce an economic recovery program, which appeared to be based on the need for Americans to act less like Europeans. I’m looking forward to his proposal to ban berets.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, once a moderate, made his mark by offering what may have been the most over-the-top apology in political history. During his rambling monologue, he called his past support of cap-and-trade legislation “hamfisted,” “stupid,” “a mistake,” and “a clunker.” He ended by confessing: “It was dumb”.
The evening’s best performance came from former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Mr. Cain has as much chance of winning the nomination as I do, but he gave the clearest articulation of a jobs policy, had the best command of his facts, and got the evening’s only standing ovation.
Not only is Mr. Cain the only African-American candidate in the Republican field, he was the only African-American in the room. One of my tablemates announced: “He sounds a lot like Martin Luther King.”
As Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota took the podium, I retreated to the Red Arrow Diner and enjoyed pancakes with New Hampshire maple syrup ($1.75 extra). The middle-aged waitress, Penny, said she had been asleep during the political affair down the street, resting up for her graveyard shift.
“They’re all a bunch of BS artists anyway,” she said. “They just tell you what they think you want to hear.”
Between gulps of Red Bull, Penny described her battle to quit smoking, engaged in playful banter with the cooks, and offered her analysis of the campaign so far.
“Maybe I should just go with Trump,” she said. “But that hair...”
Ben Konop is a former Democratic member of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners.