Like many of you, I am very pleased with the election results on Tuesday. Obviously, President Obama was re-elected with a large Electoral College margin and a popular vote margin of some three million votes. The President won 11 of the 12 “swing” states (I count NH, PA, VA, NC, FL OH, MI, WI, MN, IA, CO and NV) and all of the real “tossup” states. The Democrats, counting Angus King as one, went 25-8 in Senate elections, which are Justin Verlander numbers. By my count, 12 of the 33 races were genuinely in play and Democrats won 11 of those 12, all except Nevada (which was a one-point loss to an incumbent). Of course, Elizabeth Warren sent Scott Brown packing by almost 8 points.
But the elections are over and it’s back to crafting policy, so there’s something that’s bothering me. Much has been said in the past couple of days about the Republicans’ demographic problem. Their party has been under the control of its right wing, nominating candidates whose positions alienate many women and non-white voters (or forcing its candidates to embrace those positions even if their own preferences are more moderate). It’s true the Republicans may have a hard time changing this pattern, if recent GOP primaries are any indication, since their hardcore Rush-listening and evangelical base may not moderate its views any time soon.
But what if they do change the pattern? I don’t think we can count on Republican candidates to keep saying stupid things about rape and contraception, and making Latinos feel hated, forever. Their strategists know they have to expand their appeal somehow, and will fight within the party to do so. And that brings me to my big concern: the story this week is about Republican positions on social issues alienated women and non-white voters. It is not about how the Republican positions on economic issues are profoundly destructive of middle class prosperity. It is not about Republican hypocrisy on deficit spending (remember Dick “deficits don’t matter” Cheney?). It is not about how we need to focus on growing our economy back to health rather than more and more “deficit reduction,” which right now will be counterproductive.
In fact, the polling average right before the election showed Romney AHEAD by several points on the economy. To me, that’s nuts and it’s scary. Because the guy wouldn’t even speak openly about his proposals, but more because what he did reveal should have been enough to prove his ideas were wrong for America. For too many Americans, which party is “better” on the economy boils down to (1) which party holds the White House and (2) is the economy doing well or not right now. If it is, incumbent party’s better. If it’s not, the other guys are better. I just had a conversation to that effect with an infuriating “independent” friend who supported Romney because Obama hasn’t fixed the whole mess he inherited yet. This is a smart person but not particularly interested in politics or economics. Thus she knows nothing about Keynes or our shortfall in demand since 2007-2008. She doesn’t know what the filibuster is, and didn’t even know which party controlled the House. To her, Obama “hasn’t been all that great on the economy.” End of story.
By all rights, the 2008 election should have been the absolute end of Reaganomics. Eight years of Bush’s lower tax rates for the wealthiest had led to sluggish job growth and no real wage growth. Three decades of Wall Street deregulation had led to a huge explosion of wealth on Wall Street (while at least half the country struggled to make ends meet) and then to the largest popping of a speculative bubble since the Great Depression. For thirty years or more, the economy’s gains had gone almost exclusively to the top 1 or 2 percent, and now the results were not merely inequitable but disastrous. Barack Obama rode the public’s disgust with this state of affairs to the White House. I hoped, and actually believed at the time, that the great realignment was at hand, and more because of economic issues than because of social issues. After 40 years, it was time.
In my view, Obama lost all chance of “fixing” the economic mess he inherited in time to avoid GOP gains when he asked for a stimulus that was far too small. I emphatically reject the argument that he got the best deal he could in Congress, and I’d be happy to argue it. (He also didn’t sell it well; the “Recovery Act” and the “rescue plan for the rest of America” would have been infinitely better than the technocratic term “stimulus.” It’s just poor politics when large numbers of Americans don’t know it’s different from the Wall Street bailout.)
It seems Obama sincerely thought his proposed stimulus actually would get unemployment down to 5.8% pretty quickly, as Romney and his surrogates repeatedly reminded us this year. But he shouldn’t have. There were plenty of people like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, who have been right about basically everything, saying at the time it needed to be much bigger. And once you ask for a stimulus that’s too small, it’s hard to go back and ask for more any time soon. It just seems to “prove” that the first one didn’t work. The truth is that it DID work, but wasn’t big enough to restore us to full strength. Look at Europe for the version without a stimulus.
Had a sufficient stimulus been enacted, in 2010 Obama and the Democrats would have been the conquering heroes who cleaned up the GOP mess. As it was, demoralized Democrats watched the GOP argue that the economy was still broken, and death panels, and so on. And the GOP surged to control of the House and many state governments, just in time to thwart further economic recovery and gerrymander the House for a decade.
The ink was barely dry on the stimulus when Obama acceded to the wrongheaded assertion that “deficit reduction” is more important than promoting employment and growth. He might as well have said, “Let’s undo some of the good from my too-small stimulus plan.” Since then it’s been non-stop capitulation to the GOP hostage-takers. He extended the Bush tax cuts for top earners. He has agreed to spending reductions several times, which, as BMGers have pointed out, has led to reduced public sector employment and dragged down the overall employment numbers. He was all set for a “Grand Bargain” in 2011 that would reduce spending more than the GOP asked for and put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block. All this when our real problem is inadequate demand, and we can borrow at record low rates around 1%. This is, if ever there was, a GREAT time to run deficits. We need to fix the economy first and THEN think about balancing the budget.
Thanks to Obama’s failings and GOP intransigence, the economy was (as Mr-Lynne mentioned) a liability for Democrats to overcome this year, rather than a strength. Let’s not forget, without some screw-ups by Romney, Obama could have lost this election. As it was over 58 million people voted for Mitt Romney to be the next President, and public opinion favored him on the most critical issue in most voters’ minds. It’s for that reason a lot of those swing states Obama won were close. Here’s just a small list of things without which we might be discussing President-elect Mitt Romney today:
- The 47% remark caught on tape
- The tendency of GOP candidates around the country to look like Neanderthals on women’s issues, reinforced by Romney’s “binders full of women” remark
- A four-year old editorial entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” that might well have tipped Ohio all by itself
- Mitt’s screw-up on Benghazi at the second debate (“Please proceed, governor”)
- Romney’s refusal to reveal policy details or submit to interviews
- The national GOP’s stance, largely reiterated by Romney, against sensible immigration reform that folks like John McCain and even George W. Bush supported just six years ago
- Hurricane Sandy and Chris Christie (though Obama had the momentum before that)
I am an economic liberal as much as I am a social liberal. For that reason I am troubled by suggestions, such as the one made by a nice visiting troll, that Republicans such as Richard Tisei would be OK because not as insane as their fellow Republicans on social issues. In a word, no. I think Richard Tisei would be a disaster on economic issues, and I care about those issues deeply.
This year’s elections raise the question: How will we win when the day comes that Republicans nominate people who don’t repel Latinos with demonization tactics and don’t repel women with opposition to equal pay and regressive views on contraception, abortion and rape? How will we effect real progressive change in our economic structure? How do we go about convincing Americans our economic vision is better, as it’s been proven to be over the last century? How do we win widespread support for progressive taxation? Maintaining our hard-won safety net? Real regulation of financial markets? The desirability of a strong labor movement? Keynsianism when needed?