Get A Job
How unemployment could sink Democrats in Congress.
12:00 AM, Sep 24, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
The 2010 midterm elections are quickly approaching and congressional Democrats are already feeling some ominous symptoms. If history is any indicator, the prognosis promises only to get worse. The president's party nearly always loses seats in off-year elections--shedding 22 House seats on average in midterm contests since 1950.
Congressional election watchers Charlie Cook and Ron Brownstein wrote about these political conditions recently. "What we are seeing is an electorate growing just as disgusted with the Democratic majority as it did with the Republican one in 2006," Cook wrote in the National Journal earlier this week.
But there's more. Most believe a struggling economy will only add to the Democrats' woes. Persistent high unemployment could make the president's party's climb even steeper in November. If the current 9.7 percent jobless rate fails to improve, the chance of a Democratic disaster rises significantly.
True, variables other than jobs influence elections. In 1966, unemployment eased considerably by historical standards (it remained below 4 percent for the entire year), but Democrats still lost 48 House seats as Republicans snapped back after the 1964 Johnson/Democratic landslide. Even more recently, Republicans surrendered 30 House seats and the congressional majority in 2006 with unemployment averaging just over 4.5 percent.
Yet here's something you might not know. How many times since 1950 has unemployment even exceeded 8 percent the year of a midterm election? Answer: only once in over half a century. It happened in 1982, and the president's party (Republicans) suffered for it -- losing 26 House seats.
With unemployment now hovering just under 10 percent--and the White House's official projections for next year calling for a 9.8 percent rate--Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her troops walk on shaky ground when it comes to the politics of unemployment. In 1982, voters expressed their frustration with the lack of jobs and sent over two dozen Republicans packing. But government control then was divided. Democrats controlled a large majority in the House, and Republican Ronald Reagan was president.
Conditions are different in 2010. Democrats are again in the majority, but with Barack Obama in the White House, power is now consolidated in the hands of one party in Washington. While Democrats will no doubt try, it's hard to blame Republicans for a poor economy when Democrats have a huge majority in the House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and their man in the Oval Office.
Further, the Democrats' track record on jobs looks weak. They passed a massive $787 billion stimulus bill, yet employment remains sluggish. Opponents have labeled the House-passed climate change bill--a measure aimed at creating so-called "green-jobs"--arsenic for employment.
The president's pledge not to raise taxes on families making over $250,000 per year sounds good in speeches. But in reality a big chunk of that money comes from small businesses who file taxes as individuals. Increasing this bite on job creators' won't help employment grow.
Obama has also tried to advance health reform as a necessary ingredient for improving the economy. Yet bending the rhetoric about his signature legislative aim to fit an economic narrative looks both feckless and overly ideological. Instead of policies that produce jobs, it appears Democrats use the language of employment to promote other policy goals. When Republicans charge that just growing the government larger won't produce long-lasting employment, this argument seems to resonate with voters.
Democrats' near silence on real job proposals that might conflict with their interest group allies--such as big labor and trial lawyers--speaks volumes too. Unions, for example, muzzle debate about creating new export opportunities for American companies. "Trade policy is dead in Washington for a while," a lobbyist told me last week. And the trial bar has little to worry about in terms of real changes that might reduce business litigation costs.
Taken together, the administration's entire jobs agenda looks like warmed over Keynesian economics on top of a liberal interest group driven, untested experiment.
Off-year elections are like a political pre-existing condition for the party in power--a malady even passing health care reform can't cure. Democrats have one hope: that the stimulus they tried earlier this year will kick in by next summer. But the employment creators may not respond in time. After contemplating the costs of all this "change" in America, voters may send many members of the current majority in Congress to the unemployment lines.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.