JONATHAN CHAIT JANUARY 15, 2010
Jacob Gershman writes:
Just a quick thought on the Wehner Fallacy. Surely, it's not just one or the other: unemployment or ideology. But wouldn't you agree that ideological or partisan criticism of a political leader gains more currency during rougher economic periods? It provides a narrative of failure, gives voters a clearer reason to blame the president, and pulls centrists towards the opposition. Would a centrist leader be less vulnerable when the economy tanks?
I agree that economic conditions are not the only determinant of a president's popularity. Being seen as centrist is a benefit. But I don't think it's a very big benefit in comparison with presiding over a strong economy. Indeed a president who benefits from a strong economy is more likely to be popular and therefore seen as a centrist.
As it happens, we can test your argument. The two most centrist presidents of the last thirty years were George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. They spurned the agenda of their own party's base and faced strong intraparty challengers when running for reelection because they were seen as moving too far to the middle. Both faced poor economic conditions and suffered politically.
Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has more on the Wehner fallacy -- which, as he points out, is often embraced by narrative-seeking journalists and intraparty critics as well, though usually without the sheer brazen propagandizing that Wehner et al employ.