Elections, the Economy, and Alienating the Base

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my FindLaw column this week, I argue that the supposed anger among voters about the federal budget deficit and federal spending was an illusion. That is, the anger was real, but shouting about the deficit and "big government" was essentially a primal scream about the weakness of the economy. To put it another way, if the national debt were a trillion dollars higher today (due to an appropriately-large stimulus package), but the unemployment rate had steadily fallen into the 6% range, people would be a lot less angry about a larger level of debt.

The bulk of the column expands on my claim that there is no credible economic case to be made that the recent increases in the deficits were bad, or that long-run deficits are bad per se, which means that voters' supposed public-spiritedness -- selflessly agreeing to give up on government-provided goodies, in the face of a clear economic imperative -- is based on nonsense. Even if some people truly view austerity as a moral imperative, they can base that belief only on some kind of twisted Calvinism, not serious economic analysis.

My position about the elections, then, is extremely reductionist. The economy is in terrible shape, and the public punished the party in power. End of story. All of the post-election spin about Obama not "getting it" (as "The Daily Show" parodied so well on last night's show) is yet more nonsense. Obama's other policy initiatives would not have polled badly if the unemployment rate had been lower.

I am reminded of my youth, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency in part by seeming like a nice, normal guy. He wore jeans (a big deal at the time). He smiled a lot. He walked down Pennsylvania Avenue on inauguration day, rather than riding in a limo. It all seemed great in 1976-77, when the refreshing change of a young outsider seemed to make all the difference. Four years later, when the economy was sinking even as inflation and interest rates were rising, suddenly his smile seemed pretty annoying, and all of the rest of his differences were under attack. It is sort of like basketball coaches who are called geniuses for coming up with a strategy that won a game by a point, when the losing team shot 7-for-20 from the free throw line.

Even if the reductionist view is correct, however, there are close races that almost surely turn on something other than the economy. Or, even if they are only close because of the economy, something else could have made a difference for the president's party. All of the post-election talk has been about how the Democrats were too far to the left, but all of the post-election polling analysis shows that the entire story was about who turned out to vote. Young voters disappeared, and older voters showed up in much larger numbers. The "enthusiasm gap" was very real, in every category of voters who trend for the Democrats.

Almost immediately after Obama was elected two years ago, he set the enthusiasm gap in motion. In a world where there was no imperative that he choose economic advisors like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, Obama chose economic advisors like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. In an environment that begged for quick and decisive action on the economy, Obama went for caution and underwhelming force. I am not among those who thought that Obama was foolish to make health care reform a priority, but he chose to pursue it in a way that was guaranteed to deflate people who cared about the issue.

One of the controversies that arose during the presidential transition in 2009 was Obama's decision to invite the anti-gay evangelical minister Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration. As I argued on this blog (in three consecutive posts, the most pertinent of which was titled "Be Nice to Your Friends"), Obama was engaged in a dangerous game of poking his finger in the eye of some of his most ardent supporters. At some point, I noted, times would become difficult for Obama; and he would need his friends to rally by his side. Certainly, he could not expect Warren's flock to come to his defense.

I am not saying that it took great insight on my part to make that particular prediction. It was very clear, however, that Obama simply thought that there was a larger upside to reaching out to the mythical middle. This was especially foolish in the context of an American political truism that mid-terms are all about turnout. If there was to be any hope to minimize the near-inevitable losses by the in-party, then it would be essential to bring out the people who made Obama president. Yet even after only a year of Obama's presidency, a prominent gay rights activist said (and I am quoting from memory here): "Barack Obama is a 'fierce advocate for gay rights' the way I'm a ladies' man." Obama then decided to make it worse this past summer, when his spokesmen said that people on the left needed to be drug tested, because their disappointment with Obama was utterly baseless.

The difficulty in my argument is that there really is something dangerous about kowtowing to a radical base. George W. Bush's presidency was (by Karl Rove's avowed design) all about feeding the base. The disgusting Terry Schiavo spectacle and the stem-cell research controversy are just two examples of decisions by the president to ignore the clear majority opinion on issues, to keep the religious conservatives happy.

The difference, of course, is that Obama's continued decisions to alienate his base were not actually popular with the elusive independent voters. Don't-ask-don't-tell is very unpopular. Environmentalism is very popular. Insurance companies and banks are very unpopular. Yet in each case Obama managed to take positions that disappointed his base, while doing nothing to curry favor with swing voters (or, obviously, reaching consensus with Senate Republicans). Put more simply, Obama's base is not radical, compared to the middle of the country. (By definition, of course, they are to the left of the country, on average. There is, however, no meaningful equivalence between Bush's base and Obama's in terms of holding radical ideas -- in degree or in kind.)

The White House is now apparently even talking about giving up the fight on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans -- a fight that they should be eager to take to the voters. To a certain degree, this is, as Professor Dorf argued yesterday, "generally characteristic of the two parties: Democrats try to hedge and win by losing, while Republicans go for the jugular and win by winning." Yet Obama's take-'em-for-granted strategy seems a new low in this sad tradition. He has either become an inept politician, or he really is not who he led his base to believe he was. The evidence continues to mount that it is the latter.