Thursday, April 19, 2012

How Low Will Romney Go? Women, Teachers, and Layoffs Under Obama

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Now that the Republican Presidential field is down to Mitt Romney and two delusional men, the Romney campaign is taking its presumptive-nominee status and turning its attention to attacking President Obama nonstop. No problem. That is what campaigns do, and if anything, Romney's people must surely be feeling deprived. Their guy was never going to lose the nomination (unless he acted as if he could not lose). Nevertheless, they lost about two months of good early-season sliming, and they are keen to make up for lost time.

There is no reason to think that this campaign is going to somehow move to a higher plane than recent campaigns. Now-Senator Al Franken's book-length observation that the Bush/Cheney '04 campaign was based on "fear, smears, and queers" was spot on, and the McCain/Palin '08 campaign (with one or two notable moments of honor) intensified the sense that all bets are now off in political campaigns. And with "independent" groups now following in the ignominious steps of the Swift Boat ugliness, a new age of enlightenment is nowhere in sight.

Most of the truly disgusting moments in recent campaigns have been based on personal attacks, and I suspect that this will continue into the current campaign. It is simply not that easy to make a visceral appeal to truly base instincts on economic issues, in the same way that the Roves of the world can exploit racism and xenophobia. Not that they would be shy about trying, of course. And given that "it's (still) the economy, stupid!" we should expect an onslaught of claims that are -- if not exactly ugly in the "Obama is a Kenyan terrorist" mode -- at least astonishingly dishonest.

Which brings us to the first wave of the Romney campaign's economic claims. Any non-incumbent in a still-weak economy would run against the economy, attempting to blame the incumbent for everything that is wrong. No matter what else is said, "You've been in charge for over three years, and there are still millions unemployed," is going to resonate with voters. There will be garden-variety distortions, playing with statistics, and so on. But we generally do not expect anything in this realm that is jaw-droppingly offensive, unlike so much of the modern Republican playbook.

Because of polling that shows women strongly favoring Obama over Romney, the Romney campaign came up with a clever idea for its first coordinated theme-of-the-week: The economy is bad, and it is particularly bad for women. Inventing this case against Obama, however, required taking some steps that, especially when combined as Romney has combined them, more than crossed the line into: "Wait, they can't really be saying that, can they?!"

The big political buzz late last week covered some of this. PolitiFact (which has, shall we say, an imperfect record for identifying and calling out dishonesty) correctly faulted Romney for a deliberate distortion. Romney's claim that women had suffered 92.3% of all job losses since Obama took office was technically true, but the statistic was essentially meaningless, and the Romney spin on it was simply false.

The economy had started to tank long before Obama took office, and male-dominated industries were the first to be hit, with heavy layoffs in construction and manufacturing. Service and pink-collar companies were hit only later, after the first wave of devastation started to filter into the marrow of the economy. As this played out, it happened that the bottoming out in male-dominated industries happened while Bush was still in office, whereas the bottoming out for women happened during the first few months of Obama's term.

All very interesting, and the debunking was quite welcome. But because this is not something that even most economists would have been able to see through on a gut level, one has to admit that it was very clever. Romney took a time-honored out-party tactic -- blaming the current administration for everything that it inherited -- and exploited a cute twist that just happened to show up this time around, with the gender differences falling on either side of January 21, 2009.

Although I called such distortions time-honored, I must stop here to say that I do find the Republicans especially shameless in their insistence on blaming Obama for everything that has happened literally since Day One of his term. This would be nervy, even without the new gendered spin. My impression has always been that, when the Bush team tried to distance itself from the bursting of the Clinton-era internet bubble, pro-Democratic economists admitted at the very least that Bush could not be blamed for the direction of the economy in his first few months in office. Now, the Republicans seem to refuse to concede even the slightest economic lag time.

There is an extra dollop of awfulness here, however, involving a galling twist on a different time-honored move -- a time-honored move that Republicans, yet again, have ratcheted up to previously unseen shamelessness. The "blame the incumbent" strategy is basic, but it brings with it the question of what the other party has been doing for the last three years. The answer, as we know, is that the Republicans have done everything possible to make sure that there is no good news for which Obama could take credit. They have successfully prevented the government from reducing the unemployment rate, by fighting all stimulus measures, and by allowing state and local governments to slash their budgets, all but negating what little stimulus the federal government has been able to provide.

That is chutzpah. The out-party goes out of its way to weaken the economy, and then runs on the platform that the economy is weak. That is, again, something that has been present in U.S. politics on both sides of the aisle forever, but the extremely high degree of purely destructive obstinacy by Republicans in the last few years takes it into a different category of dishonesty.

And now that final dollop of awfulness. It is actually not mostly "service and pink-collar companies" that explain the lag in layoffs for women. It is layoffs of teachers. Understandably, most school districts delayed the painful choice to lay off teachers for as long as possible. Finally, after their revenues and rainy-day funds were gone, they asked for federal help. No help came, and the layoffs began. A clear majority of teachers are women, so women were overrepresented among the later rounds of layoffs.

Why was there no federal help? The Republicans refused to allow spending to rise. Obama and the Democrats argued, fruitlessly, to provide aid to states and cities precisely to avoid teacher layoffs.

So, it is not just that the Republicans are blaming Obama for everything that happened from the moment he took office. It is not just that they are making this a "women's issue" by exploiting a timing quirk in the patterns of layoffs of men vs. women. It is not just that they are blaming Obama for an overall weak economy that they -- more than anyone -- have been holding back.

It is that they want women to be angry at Obama because teachers were laid off after he took office. Teachers. Teachers. The same teachers that Republicans have been ridiculing as overpaid and underworked, glorified babysitters. The same teachers that one prominent Republican governor famously yelled at for being greedy. Women are supposed to be angry at Obama because a lot of teachers lost their jobs, after Republicans refused to send money to the states. This is supposed to make them more willing to vote for Romney. This is beyond chutzpah.