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The current inevitable post-election punditry has, perhaps also inevitably, gotten it mostly wrong. The Democratic defeat is attributed to President Barack Obama’s elitist intellectual style, his tactical error in focusing on health care, his ultra-liberalism, his failure to fight for liberal goals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s harshness, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s mildness (which kept his winning margin in Nevada down to a mere five percent).
None of the above. It’s still the economy, as demonstrated by a factual error made by New York Times columnist David Brooks, which cuts the foundation from under his November 5 op-ed.
Brooks is explicit in his contention that it was not unemployment that did in the Democrats. Rather, he blames voters’ desire for “government … discipline, order, and responsibility.” And to back this up, he says that “Not only in America, but also in Germany, Sweden, France, Britain and across Europe, working-class voters these days are putting center-right governments in power.”
Trouble is that it’s incorrect. In France, it is President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right government that is in deep trouble because of his failing attempts to surmount the economic crisis. Arguably the same is true for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition. In the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown’s Labor government was replaced by a coupling of the Conservatives to his right and the Liberals, in many ways to his left.
In the democratic nations of the developed world, a miserable economy is almost always blamed on the government in power, whatever its ideology: Throw the rascals out! That is true now, as it was during the sourness of the stagflation in the 1970s and early 1980s. Not only were Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter booted, so were Jim Callaghan in Britain, Helmut Schmidt in Germany, Pierre Trudeau in Canada. After Ford’s 1976 defeat, all were left-centrists, but in France, rightist Valery Giscard d’Estang was replaced by Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1980. Indeed, in the 1930s, with one exception, the moves were from right to left, starting with FDR for Herbert Hoover. The exception was Hitler for Hindenburg, which should be a warning.
Each case had its own idiosyncratic reasons; it is the economic malaise that made the reasons relevant. Had U.S. unemployment fallen to 7.5 percent by the fall of 2010, Obama’s intellectual problem solving and Pelosi and Reid’s political genius would have been hailed.
Why then did the Obama administration not understand this, and focus on jobs, jobs, jobs? Perhaps it should have, but the probable failure to actually improve the job situation beyond what it was and beyond what it is today could have made matters politically worse.
For two reasons, “focus on jobs” would have almost certainly failed to produce more jobs.
First, the real reasons for the economic downturn–starting with but by no means confined to the bursting of the housing/financial bubble–were far too fundamental to be reversed in a couple of years. As pointed out by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, administration policies did make things much better than they would otherwise have been. But voters don’t think that way; the comparison they did make, between 2010 and 2008 when they elected Obama, was discouraging.
And second, the political structure and situation precluded policies that might have brought about a perceived economic turnaround. Such policies should have started with a much bigger stimulus package than proposed by Obama, and perhaps even included a direct government jobs program akin to the WPA of the New Deal.
But the times and timing are different. When Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, the Great Depression was three years old, Hoover, the Republican incumbent and candidate, was thoroughly discredited, and Roosevelt brought in huge Democratic majorities in both houses of the Congress. He could do what he wanted.
When Obama was elected, the Great Recession was three months old, incumbent Republican George W. Bush wasn’t running, and Obama’s coattails did not bring in enough Democratic Senators to overwhelm the one third of Republicans who could and did block almost anything (under rules that had not operated in that form 76 years earlier).
Anyhow, here we are, in the wake of the Great Democratic Debacle. The blocking Senate minority has grown and will be enhanced by a House majority. The likelihood of adopting policies which might improve the situation is essentially zero. The likelihood of an outside deus ex machina (an improving world economy led by a boom in U.S. exports to China and India?) is pretty close to that.
For Obama, the saving grace might be that in the next two years, the rascals will be Republicans as well as Democrats. A Democratic strategy for rebirth in 2012 will have to be based on transferring or at least sharing the blame. Fortunately for the Dems, however, the Republicans seem poised to assist in that strategy.
The new Tea Partiers in Congress, with their belief that compromise is a mortal sin, abetted by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s proclaimed objective of beating Obama rather than improving anybody’s economic situation, will contribute to a Democratic effort to redirect the blame.
That may not be enough for the beleaguered Democrats after four years of the Great Recession, but it will help. What might help the American economy is a separate issue and a far more difficult one. No answers here.