11.07.11

Obama's Secret Weapon

With one year to go until the presidential election, Michael Tomasky handicaps the race—and explains why, despite the lackluster economy, the GOP just may get Obama reelected.

Politics is sometimes a science and other times an art. So here we sit, with the election exactly a year away, and the conventional wisdom in the political press is largely driven by the political-science theory of presidential elections and economic determinism: that is, that the results of presidential elections are pretty much strictly a function of economic conditions, and if those are bad (defined by various measures, chiefly the jobless and growth rates), the incumbent will lose.

By that theory, Barack Obama is pretty well doomed. And yet I don’t know a soul who thinks he doesn’t stand a decent chance of winning next year. As a matter of fact, it’s quite clear that his stock has risen a bit over the past couple of weeks. Why? It’s not the Republican candidates. They haven’t instantly grown appreciably sillier than they were before the last couple of weeks. Herman Cain’s had a rocky time of it, but nothing more than rocky so far. So it’s not that. I say it’s Congress. The Republicans in Congress, specifically. Obama’s secret weapons in this election are Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, and the way things are headed they’re going to have economic-determinist political scientists going back to the drawing board in 2013 and adding a corollary to their theory: if economic conditions are bad, the incumbent will lose, unless the people have decided to blame the bad economy on the opposition party in Congress.

The most important and interesting poll question asked in recent memory is the one Suffolk University finally thought to ask last week, surveying Floridians about various matters in their state. People were asked if they thought the Republicans were “intentionally stalling efforts to jumpstart the economy to insure that Barack Obama is not re-elected.” In response, 49 percent said yes, and just 39 percent said no. Among liberals, 75 percent said yes, and among moderates, fully 59 percent said yes (to 31 percent saying no). Interestingly, even a third of conservatives said yes (many of whom presumably thought it was a grand idea to do so). Forty-nine isn’t a majority, but it’s close, and Florida isn’t the country, but, if anything, it leans a little to the country’s right, so this is a shockingly large number considering that we Americans are supposed to believe that no one in our great and celebrated system of government would ever do such a thing. But people are starting to believe it, and it will be the GOP’s worst nightmare if it gets to the point that 58 percent or so of the country agrees. Given that majorities of conservatives and Republicans will never agree with this, a number like 58 (or even 55) will mean that a substantial majority of independents think it’s true.

That will be, if it happens, a situation with no precedent in our relevant national history. The economic-determinism model works because it assumes what we on all sides of the political argument have always assumed: that the economy is the president’s responsibility. But if the Democrats play this the right way, the economy will be just as much the GOP’s responsibility as the president’s. And don’t forget George W. Bush. People still remember that this all started under him, as Joe Biden and other Democrats would do well to subtly remind voters next fall. More people still blame Bush than Obama for the economy. Worse still for Republicans, to the extent that the economy is on the upswing by November 2012, Obama will be getting the credit for any improvements, since it’ll be clear to majorities that at least he and the Democrats are trying to do something; and to the extent that the economy is still stalled, majorities will fix blame for that on the Republicans, for voting no-no-no-no-no en bloc to everything.

This really puts congressional Republicans in a box. It could mean that two, three, four months from now, assuming Senate Democrats keep forcing these votes on aspects of the jobs plan, we’ll start to see some Republicans peel off. I doubt it will come to that—the only one under real pressure to do so will be Scott Brown, facing an extremely formidable likely opponent in Elizabeth Warren in liberal Massachusetts. The rest of the GOP senators will be under intense pressure from McConnell to stick to no, because if they give Obama seven votes (i.e., enough to clear 60 and then become law) on any jobs plank, then their entire opposition strategy is dead. Obama can say to the voters: see, by God, it took me a while, but I did bring the parties together. And he’ll be right. Or right enough for politics. The election will be over. So they’ll stick to being the party of no. But as long as the Senate Democrats keep scheduling votes, and Obama keeps barnstorming, more and more Americans will see that the Republicans are intentionally stalling the economy.

The GOP’s reputation is so low, and its image (and reality) as obstructionist so steadily solidifying, that it’s going to hang like the stink of garlic around the nominee’s neck.

And eventually, the GOP nominee will have to deal with this. Yes, that candidate will speak of the future and his plans, and I’m not saying that Floridians or Ohioans are going to be walking into the voting booth thinking of Eric Cantor. But the GOP’s reputation is so low, and its image (and reality) as obstructionist so steadily solidifying, that it’s going to hang like the stink of garlic around the nominee’s neck. This scenario depends on the Democrats handling all this the right way politically, which is not exactly the most dependable assumption, especially with this White House. But what a beautiful thing it would be if the GOP’s obstructionism were the factor that buried its candidate next year. It’s the Democrats’ job to make sure that one year from today, as voters are doing their last-second sizing up of things, the behavior of the GOP over the last four years is one of the things they think about. If it is, Obama will win, even if the economy is ho-hum, and the political scientists will have four years to figure out why.