“Democrats across the country are starting to wonder aloud if they misjudged the electorate over the last year, with profound ramifications for the midterm elections this year and, potentially, for Mr. Obama’s presidency,” writes Adam Nagourney in the Sunday New York Times. A similar theme appears in Sunday’s Washington Post from Dan Balz, that paper’s lead political analyst. The perception has formed, perhaps indelibly, that the reason Democrats will get hammered in the 2010 elections is that the party moved too far left in general and tried to reform health care in particular.
This perception owes itself, above all, to the habit that political analysts in the media and other outposts of mainstream thought have of ignoring structural factors. Any political scientist can tell you that external factors hold enormous sway over public opinion. Economic conditions tend to matter the most, but scandals, wars, personality, and other factors come into play. While the Democrats may have committed sundry mistakes, the reason for their diminished popularity that towers above all others is 10 percent unemployment.
But political analysts are more like drama critics. They follow the ins and outs of the tactical maneuverings of the players, and when the results come in, their job is to explain how the one led to the other. If you suggested to them that they should instead explain the public mood as a predictable consequence of economic conditions, rather than the outcome of one party’s strategic choices, they would look at you like you were crazy. They spend their time following every utterance and gesture of powerful politicians. Naturally, it must be those things that have the decisive effect.
If you believe that Democratic ideological overreach is the problem--“they thought the country was at a very different place ideologically,” explains perpetually quoted Republican wise man Vin Weber--then you have to undertake the following thought experiment. Imagine that John McCain won the 2008 election. (How? I don’t know--maybe Obama is caught on tape singing “Kill Whitey” to himself in a private moment.) Would McCain have more popular support right now than Obama does, because the public really wants an agenda of smaller government and lower taxes?
That’s not a very plausible scenario. Instead, most of the pundits want us to believe that Obama could have avoided a political backlash if only he’d taken a different course. Charlie Cook asserts that Obama made a “colossal miscalculation” by failing to focus on the economy, but neglects to suggest what economic policies Obama could have proposed instead. Time’s Joe Klein has suggested an alternative course of action for the president. Obama should have been “pushing for stricter financial regulations and a tax on big banks to recoup the bailouts,” argues Klein. “He should also revive his campaign pledge of a National Infrastructure Bank, which would take decisions about the most important new public works projects out of the hands of Congressional porkers. If Obama had done so in his first year, his approval ratings might be closer to 60% than to 50% today.” This strikes me as giving the voters a bit more credit as policy wonks than they deserve.
It’s hard to imagine any non-trivial economic policy Obama could have embraced that would have gained any Republican support. We don’t have to speculate about this--there’s a good case study at hand of a policy proposal embraced by Obama that enjoys strong support among right-of-center economists and provides clear economic benefits. It’s called his stimulus plan. More than one-third of it consisted of tax cuts. A consensus of economic forecasters believes it substantially aided the economy, and even conservative economists like the American Enterprise Institute’s John Makin agree. Yet that stimulus provoked a massive Republican outcry and provided no public-opinion boost to Obama.
What’s actually surprising about public opinion is not how much has changed since 2008, but how little. His approval rating in the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, 53-44, nearly matches his 2008 vote total. Obama still enjoys a massive edge in trust over congressional Republicans. That Democrats are suffering from a voter backlash anyway just shows how mechanistically public opinion can behave.
The establishment’s tendency to ignore structural forces is a thoroughly bipartisan one. (And, for the record, I also object to it when candidates I agree with win. After the 2008 election, I wrote, “In reality, no president ever truly has a mandate, in the sense of the electorate voting for him as if his entire platform were a ballot initiative. Candidates' platforms play a role in who wins elections, but so do economic conditions, scandals, the candidates' personalities, and the Election Day weather in Philadelphia.”)
The difference between the parties is that Republicans ignore the establishment’s advice. After Obama’s election, conventional wisdom insisted that the GOP would have to move to the center. Instead the party moved further right. And whatever the policy merits, it has worked politically. If Republicans had cooperated more with Obama, it would have given him bipartisan accomplishments and made him even more popular.
The GOP’s ability to ignore establishment nostrums in the face of defeat is its great electoral strength. Democrats, by contrast, have a congenital tendency to panic. Abandoning health care reform after they’ve already paid whatever political cost that comes from voting for it in both houses would be suicide. Even if Coakley loses, the House could pass the Senate bill as is, avoiding the need to break a filibuster, and tinker with it in a reconciliation bill that can’t be filibustered. The only thing preventing the Democrats from following through would be sheer panic.
Remember the classic scene in It’s a Wonderful Life? Facing a run on his building and loan, George Bailey tries to explain to his frantic customers how to look after their self-interest. “Don't you see what's happening?” he pleads, “Potter isn't selling. Potter's buying! And why? Because we're panicking and he's not.” President Obama’s great challenge right now is to be his party’s George Bailey.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.