So, it appears that the president has decided to channel the candidacy of Walter Mondale from 1984. Here’s President Obama, on Monday:
So this is how we can reduce spending: by scouring the budget for every dime of waste and inefficiency, by reforming government spending, and by making modest adjustments to Medicare and Medicaid. But all these reductions in spending, by themselves, will not solve our fiscal problems. We can’t just cut our way out of this hole. It’s going to take a balanced approach. If we’re going to make spending cuts -- many of which we wouldn’t make if we weren’t facing such large budget deficits -- then it’s only right that we ask everyone to pay their fair share…
And that’s why this plan eliminates tax loopholes that primarily go to the wealthiest taxpayers and biggest corporations –- tax breaks that small businesses and middle-class families don’t get. And if tax reform doesn't get done, this plan asks the wealthiest Americans to go back to paying the same rates that they paid during the 1990s, before the Bush tax cuts.
Here’s Walter Mondale, more than a quarter century ago:
Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan's bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. And anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth to the American people.
I mean business. By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two-thirds.
Let's tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.
There's another difference. When he raises taxes, it won't be done fairly. He will sock it to average-income families again, and leave his rich friends alone. And I won't stand for it. And neither will you and neither will the American people.
To the corporations and freeloaders who play the loopholes or pay no taxes, my message is: Your free ride is over.
In both cases, we see the same basic argument: increase taxes to lower the deficit and engage in more social welfare spending. Mondale campaigned in 1984 as an unabashed Great Society liberal, looking to rally the old groups of the Roosevelt/Truman/Kennedy/Johnson coalition – working class whites, union workers, middle class Catholics, and so on.
Will a similar strategy work for Obama?
To start, it never worked for Mondale. Not only was the former vice president road kill on Ronald Reagan’s triumphal march to reelection, he got shellacked among the core New Deal groups. Reagan won 60 percent of those born before 1924 (and thus experienced the Great Depression first hand), 70 percent of Southern whites, 58 percent of working class whites, 51 percent of Catholics, and even 47 percent of union workers. In other words, Mondale’s old time liberal message of higher taxes and more social welfare spending did not work on any level in 1984.
So why should we expect it to work in 2012? If anything, voters are more skeptical than ever about the government’s ability to get things right, as this recent release from the Gallup poll demonstrates:
Liberals do not fully appreciate the implications of this widespread skepticism about the government.
Obviously, this hurts both political parties, but the political ideology that suffers most is liberalism, as it’s the one with faith in the power of government to do big, grand things. That’s a faith that the mass public no longer shares. Republicans in Congress are harmed by this widespread skepticism, but it is actually in keeping with the small government philosophy of modern conservatism.
Unabashed, big government liberalism hasn’t been a clean political winner on the national level since 1964. The three Democrats who have won presidential victories since then – Carter, Clinton, and Obama – all ran away from it in one form or another. It sure didn’t work for Mondale in 1984, so I don’t see why it will work for Obama in 2012.
Obvious follow-up: Why is Obama doing this?
I think the answer is a mixed cocktail: two parts delusion and one part strategy.
The strategy. Obama wins by uniting an energized Democratic base with the swing vote. Right now, the swing vote is not disposed to him, and this deficit plan will not help. However, it will help with the base, which has been grumbling of late. There’s no question that the Democratic base will vote for Obama over the GOP (and as I’ve argued before the notion of a serious primary challenge is not tenable), the issue is that he needs its active engagement. He needs labor money, environmental money, feminist money, extraordinary African American turnout, and so on. It’s quite possible that Obama figures that this package (plus some good old fashioned demagoguery of the eventual GOP nominee) will energize the base, and the swing vote will come back if he can get lucky with some economic growth next year.
The delusion. As I mentioned last week, Obama is a fellow with a very high opinion of himself. So, if his advisors have convinced him that hitting these populist, Mondale-esque themes is basically a way to “let Obama be Obama,” then it’s no shock that he’s pursuing this path. After all, Obama loves being Obama.
Beyond that, the left has long subscribed to the theory that voters are abstractly conservative but programmatically liberal. That is, ask them whether spending should be increased or decreased in general, and they’ll say decreased. But ask them about specific programs, and they’ll call for increases.
There is no doubt that polling often exhibits this dichotmy (see this recent result from Gallup, for example), but the problem is that such policy questions have had all the practicalities of politics shorn from them. On paper, a plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to reduce the deficit is popular – but in practice people understand that politicians will also raise taxes on small businesses, use budget gimmicks to “reduce” the deficit, and spend the surplus revenue on their pet programs. So while the Democratic tax-hiking plan may be “popular,” the GOP is trusted more on taxes by voters.
The health care bill suffered from something like this. People generally supported individual items as pollsters described them, but hated the overall bill. Why? Because the process by which it was passed simply reinforced their already negative opinions about the government’s efficacy. So when push came to shove, they simply didn’t believe that Obamacare would do all the wonderful things the president promised.
Liberal strategists who work for the president probably don’t fully appreciate this, and are giving him the bad advice to push earnestly for tax and spending increases. If they knew their history a little better, they’d know how well that idea worked for Mondale back in 1984.