Barack Obama may be the luckiest politician in modern American history. Repeatedly throughout his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency, the way forward has been opened by the errors and misconceptions of his opponents. Now it is happening again. The free-market economic ideology of the Republican Party is tailor-made to promote Obama’s reelection at a time when much of the country has begun to doubt whether market forces are fair or effective.
Republicans don’t see this. They think Obama is a closet socialist whose progressive beliefs are wildly out of sync with the nation’s mainstream political culture. Outside of Massachusetts and the Left Coast, they may be right. But what voters want most from the federal government in a prolonged economic downturn is financial assistance — extended unemployment insurance benefits, loan forgiveness, healthcare subsidies and the like. That’s exactly what Obama has been offering in recent weeks, and the result has been a rise in his job approval.
Meanwhile, Republicans have been talking about cutting the budget deficit and scaling back the welfare state. How dumb is that at a time when unemployment is at the highest level in a generation and millions of baby boomers approaching retirement are watching their home equity evaporate? The reason Republicans are saying these things, aside from the fact they really believe them, is that you have to sound like a free-market conservative to win the party’s nomination. Mitt Romney’s inability to rise above 25 percent support among likely Republican primary voters results mainly from the fact that he seems too middle-of-the-road — which is another way of saying he sounds like the 75 percent of the electorate that can’t be counted among the Republican faithful.
The reason Republicans think they can still beat Obama is the time-tested political principle that when the economy is doing poorly, the incumbent loses. And sure enough, no president since FDR has managed to win reelection with unemployment as high as it is today. But Ronald Reagan’s unemployment rate was even higher one year before the reelection campaign in which he won a landslide victory; he managed to win because the rate was trending in the right direction — down — during the campaign, so voters thought things were getting better even though many of them were still suffering.
That is precisely where Obama is headed — to a lower but still high unemployment rate a year from now (the economy grew an encouraging 2.5 percent in the third quarter). Republicans will try to convince voters they can offer better economic results with a platform that sounds suspiciously like Herbert Hoover circa 1932. Obama will agree that the deficit is a bad thing, and then keep offering economic benefits aimed at the broad majority of voters who are struggling and fearful about the future. The median household in America has not seen its income grow since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, and any home equity it had accumulated has vanished over the past four years. In fact, a large minority of the homeowning electorate owes more on mortgages than their houses are now worth.
Maybe Mr. Obama’s efforts to fix this problem have not worked so well, but what do Republicans have to offer as an alternative? Basically, nothing. They hold out the promise of a better tomorrow when the electorate already knows that their Reaganesque agenda of tax cuts, deregulation and free trade failed spectacularly in the first decade of the new millennium. Of course the public hates to see the government borrowing billions of dollars every day from the likes of China, but is that really what will motivate most voters on election day? It’s more likely they will remember Rick Perry calling Social Security a ponzi scheme and Herman Cain telling the unemployed to blame themselves.
Mitt Romney was smart enough not to go there, and if his party has any sense at all it will select him as the nominee. But conservative economic ideology will make Romney’s election prospects dimmer than they had to be because so many true believers on the Right just can’t seem to understand what decides elections in hard times. It isn’t budget deficits or big government. It’s the economy, stupid — or more precisely, the candidate willing to offer the most relief to its victims.
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