The Settling Electorate

Ross Douthat laments the electorate’s apparent willingness to accept the past couple of years’ worth of economic performance as a “new normal” that constitutes sufficient grounds to re-elect the president.

It is lamentable that this is where we find ourselves, but I don’t think you can judge this separately from the issue of the Republican opposition simply failing to engage in a serious way with the short-term economic crisis. You can see what I mean by looking at the exception that proves the rule: Since Obama’s inauguration, Republicans have hammered away at the idea that Obama’s environmental commitments are stifling the short-term job creating impact of investment in fossil fuel extraction and transportation. And precisely because this isn’t a crazy idea, over time Obama administration policy has evolved to become increasingly enthusiastic about the short-term economic impact of fossil fuel extraction and less and less focused on the long-term environmental problems involved.

Obama’s willingness to make concessions on this point hasn’t changed partisan politics, but has had impact in the real world. As expected, we have both more pollution and more mining sector employment than we would had this pivot not taken place.

But America’s way too big a country for us to all get jobs fracking for natural gas. And while there are plenty of other issues where the GOP has pushed Obama, there really aren’t any other areas related to the short-term jobs crisis where they’ve done so. They haven’t pushed for a more assertive approach to housing policy, they haven’t pressed for more expansionary monetary policy, and they haven’t pushed for expansionary fiscal policy. Again, the one time the GOP lined its ducks up behind a version of Keynesian fiscal stimulus—a proposal for a two-year full extension of the Bush tax cuts—they got their way, and more Americans are employed today than otherwise would have been.

Had there been more fights like this where Republicans put ideas on the table that are both compatible with conservative ideology and genuinely responsive to the economic problems in America, then one of two things would happen. Either the economy would be just as bad and more people would be more furious at Obama or else the economy would be in better shape. But going back to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the Republicans seem to have mostly looked on outcome number two—they propose constructive ideas and Obama accepts them, leading to a better economic outcome—as a scary scenario to avoid, one that would undermine their goal of making Obama a one-term president. The most bitter irony of all is that the strategy doesn’t look to be working. We’re in a much worse substantive place than we could have been, but are nonetheless heading for precisely the political outcome Republicans were trying to avoid.