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The Carletonian

The Only Number that Matters

<f the most honest messages I have been told was by a campaign manager for whom I was volunteering a few years ago. He asked me if I was majoring in Political Science. I answered yes, and he responded with a chuckle, telling me, “there’s no such thing.” I disagree, but I can definitely understand that sentiment. After every election, there are explanations and theories, blames and recriminations. They’re all written and delivered by so-called political experts, yet they’re opinions so clearly conflict with and contradict each other’s that it isn’t clear if anyone actually knows what they’re talking about. It can really get confusing.

On Tuesday Republicans won control of the House of Representatives by a larger margin than expected (the average estimate was about 53 seats and they won north of 60). Some say this Republican success signals a clear repudiation of President Obama and his liberal policies. The elections were a clear sign that government had overreached over the last two years, many conservative pundits are fond of saying, and this election is a referendum on liberalism. The other common response is that Republicans won because Democrats did not turn out. Supporters of Obama say this low turnout was of course a clear sign that the President wasn’t an active and vocal enough defender of liberal policies.
These directly contradict, yet there are probably truths to each. The illusion of out of control spending and left wing policies (I say illusion because the trajectory of federal spending has changed little since the Bush administration, and Obama’s legislative accomplishments were actually pretty moderate) fired up a lot of conservatives and boosted conservative turnout. But it was just that, an illusion. At the same time, the fact that many of the legislative initiatives were more centrist than many liberals would have liked has led to disenchantment throughout the liberal ranks, especially among young voters whose turnout numbers were way down on Tuesday compared to 2008’s election of hope and change.
The easiest thing to do, therefore, is to call it a communications problem. Democrats didn’t do a good enough job selling itself to the country! Surely, the White House could have been better at creating a more cohesive narrative, selling its policies, and bringing along and maintaining the movement the Presidential campaign created.

One of the Obama administration’s failures has been its inability to manage expectations. It needed to prepare the population for the real possibility it would need to take more bites of the apple, and that government would need to keep trying. This is true, but good communication is a means to the end of implementing more policy. We can conjecture that this or that strategy would have allowed for a bigger stimulus or more state aid but we do not know for sure how much it would have helped. In essence better communication is just one side of the coin. You communicate well so that the public allows you to act more. But since we don’t know how much different communication would have made other policies possible, the public outreach argument only goes so far. I’m not sure that better messaging would have given the public the patience to tolerate unemployment at this level and therefore have saved Democrats on Tuesday. Remember, Republicans made the decision from day one to not cooperate with Obama, and it isn’t clear that more public backing (which Obama did have at the time) would have allowed the administration to pursue more fiscal stimulus than it did.

The more important factor at play then, one that political scientists will tell you is the real culprit is the unemployment rate. As James Carville said so well, “it’s the economy, stupid!” Essentially, the only thing that really matters is unemployment. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post explains, this is something political scientists know very well. In times of high unemployment, the party in power will get punished, regardless of whether they are elephants or donkeys.

If you hear ideological arguments about why a party is during better or worse, I suggest you take them with a grain of salt. Yes Americans didn’t like the health care bill, but more than thinking it was a government take over, people didn’t support it because the economy was still doing poorly; the high unemployment rate probably hurt its support more. Likewise for the stimulus: the majority doesn’t like it not because of a philosophical aversion to fiscal policy stimulating economic demand, but rather because they look at the high unemployment rate and don’t think the stimulus worked. They then see government trying and not succeeding. Most of the current antagonism towards in the country is therefore hardly the result of Independent America’s philosophy on government. Negative reactions to government are really just reactions to the economic reality. Those who aren’t partisans generally like government if its helping them and they’re doing well, and don’t like it when they aren’t doing well, and insecurity and pain fuels fear and impatience.

Now, of course there are a lot of people who are employed, more than 90% of the labor force. But if you take into account the people who are working part time, feel insecure in their jobs, or know someone who can’t find work, it becomes clear that unemployment matters a lot. Simply, it impacts almost everyone. People are pissed because their wallets are thinner and frightened it will stay that way, and Democrats are in power.

So where does this leave Democrats as they formulate their strategies for the future? The bottom line is that if the unemployment rate is still this high in two years, Obama will be a one-term president. Americans don’t care about process, they care about results, and what they see right now are bad results. If Democrats do not want this election to repeat itself in two years, they need to try anything that may work to speed up economic recovery. That means the executive branch exercising as much power as it can when Republicans obstruct, and it also means finding every possible area of common ground with Republicans and implementing those bipartisan ideas immediately. The economy is all that matters and until it gets fixed, nothing else can be on the radar (this doesn’t exclude energy reform but if implemented in the next two years it will have to be a smaller and more targeted package). Even though Republicans now hold some governing responsibility, the buck ultimately will stop with the President. Health care and financial reform laid decent foundations for the future. But as the 2012 presidential race starts now, the economy’s weak state should be the only important factor for Democrats. The unemployment rate is truly the only number that matters.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist.

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