Sunday, July 4, 2010

Important Thoughts from Benen

As a rule the weekly addresses offered by President Obama and a Republican official aren't especially important. But yesterday's address from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was one of the weekend's more noteworthy developments.

This week offered new evidence that our fragile economic recovery is on very shaky ground. The monthly job totals from June were deeply disappointing. The real estate market continues to struggle badly. Reports on construction spending and manufacturing activity both disappointed.

It wasn't surprising, then, that the president's weekly address talked about the economy, with Obama trying to highlight some more encouraging developments, and talking up initiatives that will generate some new jobs.

But that's why Chambliss' GOP response is so striking. His articulation of the Republican message of the week sent an unmistakable signal about exactly what the minority party considers important right now.

"As the Declaration's parchment has yellowed with age, America has become a rich nation whose ideals and economy have been the envy of the world. We have faced down many enemies at home and abroad.

"But one of the most dangerous threats confronting America today doesn't come from without, but from within. And I'm talking about our national debt.

"Wisely, the Declaration's author, Thomas Jefferson, warned of this danger early on. As he once said, 'There does not exist an engine so corruptive of the government and so demoralizing of the nation as public debt. It will bring us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad against whom this Army and Navy are to protect us.' As usual, Jefferson was right.

"At a time when many Americans are clipping coupons and pinching pennies, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress continue to spend money that they -- we -- do not have."

Chambliss went on (and on) from there -- talking up the size of the debt, the debt burden per person, the debt growth per day, the debt as a proportion of every federal dollar spent, the expected rate of growth of the debt, interest on the debt, foreign financing of the debt, etc.

The key to America's continued greatness, Chambliss concluded, is to "secure America's fiscal future."

So, literally just one day after the release of the worst monthly jobs report since October, and with a genuine employment crisis undermining the economy, the official Republican message of the week is to talk about the debt -- a debt, by the way, that grew by $5 trillion during the Bush/Cheney era because of breathtaking Republican recklessness.

How many times did Chambliss mention the word "jobs"? Literally none. How many references were there to "unemployment"? Zero. What did Chambliss offer in terms of ideas to improve the economy? There weren't any -- he didn't talk about growing the economy at all.

The most important issue on the minds of Americans went completely ignored, because the GOP has decided a different issue matters more than the economy.

There are few things more important in American politics right now than the realization that Republican lawmakers have no intention of even trying to create jobs. As Chambliss helped demonstrate, by their own admission, Republicans believe strengthening the recovery isn't the goal; lowering the deficit they created is the goal.

Republicans aren't just offering the wrong answer; they're asking the wrong question.


Evidence of an "enthusiasm gap" between Democratic and Republican voters is hardly new, though it may prove to be one of the year's most important campaign dynamics. Recently, the trend became even more evident.

Gallup's latest poll measuring partisan enthusiasm not only showed Republicans with a sizable advantage, but found that excitement among GOP voters has reached a level with no modern precedent.

This week's report from the Pew Research Center found a similar partisan landscape: "Fully 56 percent of Republican voters say they are more enthusiastic about voting this year than in previous elections -- the highest percentage of GOP voters expressing increased enthusiasm about voting in midterms dating back to 1994.... The Republican Party now holds about the same advantage in enthusiasm among its party's voters that the Democratic Party held in June 2006 and the GOP had late in the 1994 campaign."

And 1994 proved to be a rather consequential year, as I recall.

But to me, that wasn't the most interesting part. This was. (via Suzy Khimm)

...Democratic voters this year are not particularly pessimistic about the election: 29 percent expect the Democrats to do better in this year's midterm, far more than the percentage of GOP voters who said that four years ago (16 percent). Nearly half of Democratic voters (48 percent) expect the party to do about the same this fall as in recent elections, while just 18 percent say it will do worse.

Wait, wait, wait. Democratic voters aren't nervous?

This is, of course, just one poll, and I haven't seen other outlets asking the same question, so it's hard to say with certainty just how widespread these attitudes really are.

But the Pew Research Center is a fairly reliable outlet, and if its reporting on this is accurate, it's really important.

Democratic candidates excelled in 2006, and had another terrific cycle in 2008. It's certainly possible that Pew's data is correct -- Democratic voters just don't realize, at least not yet, that the party's gains can entirely disappear this November, giving enormous power to an increasingly radicalized Republican Party.

If less than a fifth of Democratic voters expect Dems to do worse in 2010 than in recent elections, the party has no choice but to make the stakes clear.

To put it mildly, there's a very plausible chance the Democrats will lose their House majority; control of the Senate is in play; and there's no shortage of important gubernatorial races and ballot initiatives. There's also the consequential matter of post-Census redistricting -- the more Republicans are elected to state legislatures, the more lines will be redrawn to help GOP congressional candidates.

Republican voters, according to multiple polls, are practically counting the days until November, almost desperate to elect far-right candidates. If rank-and-file Dems seriously believe their party is positioned to do well -- indeed, if nearly a third of these Dems expect the party's candidates to do better than usual -- they're living in a fantasy world.

The awakening next January will likely be a rude one -- intractable gridlock, endless and pointless investigations, and a progressive policy agenda brought to an immediate halt. Hell, presidential impeachment might even find itself on the table.

This expectations problem is not lost on party leaders.

Architects of President Obama's 2008 victory are braced for potentially sizable Democratic losses in November's midterm elections. But they say voters' unease about a GOP takeover will help their party maintain congressional majorities.

"I think the prospect of a Republican takeover -- while not likely, but plausible -- will be very much part of the dynamic in October, and I think that will help us with turnout and some of this enthusiasm gap," said David Plouffe, who was Obama's campaign manager two years ago and is helping to oversee Democratic efforts this fall. Still, he put all Democrats on notice, saying: "We'd better act as a party as if the House and the Senate and every major governor's race is at stake and in danger, because they could be."

That sounds about right. If Democratic voters realize that a radicalized GOP is poised to make significant gains in November, Dems are more likely to show up to prevent that from happening. The combination of Democratic successes -- breakthrough legislation on health care, student loans, Wall Street safeguards, etc. -- and Republican hysteria seems like a capable antidote to the enthusiasm gap.

But that means the party has quite a bit of educating to do over the next four months, because if Pew's research is correct, the Democratic rank-and-file has no idea how devastating the elections might be.

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