Serious job talk is as elusive as the snow in New Hampshire

(Photo by Slate's Dave Weigel)

As promised, a preview of my first report from the Granite State for tomorrow's Daily News:

MANCHESTER, N.H.  – Pastor Max Darbouze, a U.S. citizen born in Haiti and now a pastor at Grace of God Church amid the three-story working-class duplexes on the east side of New Hampshire’s largest city, showed up an hour early for the Newt Gingrich town hall yesterday because he wanted to learn one thing.

It had been a rough Christmas at Darbouze’s church, with more toys doled out to poverty-stricken families than ever before, and even non-members walking in off the street begging for donations of cash. So the minister had high hopes that the former House speaker and 2012 GOP presidential candidate would use this event billed as a “Latino town hall” to explain how he’d tackle joblessness and the weak economy.

“The biggest issue right now is jobs, so we want to find out how he’s going to bring jobs to our community and how he can help,” the pastor said. He said is hoping government will invest more in job training for the underprivileged.

Then Gingrich arrived at the Don Quijote Mexican and Caribbean Restaurant, where his political jabs on jobs were about as realistic as tilting at windmills. After an opening pronouncement that the economy is indeed the No. 1 issue in 2012, he rarely returned to the subject in a loping speech and Q-and-A session that did manage to mention everything from the Monroe Doctrine to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge’s 1964 primary win here.

Darbouze left the restaurant frustrated. “I’m still not making my mind yet,” he said afterwards. “There was no job talking. I want to know how we are going to survive, because that’s the main thing in our community is the jobs.”

There is something very off about the nation’s first primary election in this critical 2012 race – and it’s not just the mild days and lack of snow in a storied state where presidential ambitions have long been won or lost, from Ed Muskie’s frigid tears to Ronald Reagan paying for the microphone to Bill Clinton’s doughnut-fueled comeback.

In a contest that was supposed to hinge on the sluggish state of the economy and the millions of long-term unemployed Americans, concrete talk about solving the jobs crisis has proved almost as elusive as the snowflakes in this unseasonable warm January.  With the now-trailing candidates like Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum eager to prove their conservative bona fides as an alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney, the rivals find it easier to talk about how they’d blow up Iran than how they’d demolish the current unemployment rate of 8.5 percent.

And so, it seems, does the news media. In a move that seemed an exclamation point on a primary going off the rails, a two-hour ABC News debate here on Saturday night included no questions on the economy in the first hour but did feature a 15-minute moderator-provoked argument on banning birth control, something that not even activists on the far right have been clamoring for in the last several decades.

Several undecided independent voters at yesterday’s Gingrich event left it just like Darbouze – still undecided. One of them is Jon Hopwood, an editor from Manchester who’s been unemployed for most of the last five years; he voted for Obama in 2008 but is shopping around in 2012. No one has closed the deal although he’s looking at moderate Republican Jon Huntsman.

“There’s a lot of hidden unemployed people, and there’s a great deal of anxiety over jobs,” Hopwood said. “Nobody I know is a social conservative.” But he said Gingrich frustrated him yesterday with a statement that “I don’t want to pay people to do nothing for 99 weeks,” a jab at long-term unemployment compensation. Gingrich said the 99 weeks could be used to retrain the jobless; Hopwood noted that he’s eligible for veteran re-training in health care but people he knows in that field have been laid off too.

Why the jobs disconnect?  One part of the problem may be that the 2012 presidential race started in two states with among the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Here in New Hampshire, the official jobless number is just 5.2 percent, fourth-lowest in the nation and a tribute to both its move from textile mills to high-tech a generation ago as well as conservative lending practices during the housing bubble of the 2000s.

But economic angst hasn’t declined to pre-recession levels. The Granite State has still lost 14,000 manufacturing jobs since 2005, and one survey found that 42 percent of the new jobs created here in the last year were in bars and restaurants, which tend to offer lower pay. And not every restaurant is thriving

“It’s been terrible,” said Luis Sepulveda, the Dominican-born owner of the seven-year-old Don Quijote restaurant, who invested heavily in flashy murals and brightly painted walls just as the economy tanked. “That wasn’t the right time to do that.” A Democrat-turned-independent, Sepulveda wants to hear the candidates say more about freeing up loans for small businesses, and lowering fuel costs as well.

But there lies the real crux of the Republican primary contest. While middle-class voters like Darbouze or Sepulveda want to hear what politicians can do directly for them with training or aid, such talk is anathema to the GOP base after its tea-party fueled revolt against any significant role for government. So instead, the White House hopefuls talk about slashing more regulations and lowering back taxes for corporations – even though corporations are sitting on records amounts of cash yet still for the most part are not hiring.

Here is the economic plan that Gingrich described at his Latino town hall:

“We also, as part of our tax programs, have zero capital gains so that hundreds of billions of dollars would pour back into the U.S.  Reduce the corporate tax rate to 12 and a half percent, which would probably liberate $700 billion coming back to the U.S. to create jobs. And we also eliminate the death tax, because it’s wrong to punish people who work hard and succeed…” Of course, capital gains and estate taxes now fall heavily on the wealthiest Americans.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In a dose of extreme irony, about a dozen Occupy Wall Street protestors – seeking to put income inequality on the top of the national agenda – pounded on windows and banged a drum just outside Don Quijote, their muffled message difficult to hear inside.

No wonder so many New Hampshire voters remain undecided – and confused.  “The problem with the Republicans – I find it even with Jon Huntsman – is that they really don’t offer you a solution,” said Hopwood, the unemployed editor. “They’re just going to offer you this blue sky, that by cutting taxes or going back to the Bill of Rights – no, the Declaration of Independence –suddenly there’s going to be all this money!”