We’re just under eight months away from Election Day now, which means that the GOP is starting to run out of time to think up new ways to ruin the economy so that Barack Obama doesn’t get reelected. The Republicans have to do this delicately, of course; they can’t be open about it lest it become too obvious that harming the economy is their goal. But they have to be aggressive enough about it for their efforts to bear some actual (rotten) fruit. There are three fronts—gas prices, jobs, and the budget—on which we should keep our eyes open for signs that the Republicans are trying to achieve Mitch McConnell’s No. 1 goal for America.
Let’s take them in order. The Republicans received joyous news Monday in the form of the Washington Post poll that showed Obama’s numbers sinking in inverse proportion to rising gas prices. The gas situation is perfect for the GOP for two reasons. First, there’s very little a president can actually do about gas prices. Second, even though those prices don’t really tell us much about the more general economy, most people have the impression that they do, so for the out-party, it’s just a free whack.
No one can blame Republicans for using Obama as a piñata on the issue. But here’s what they can be blamed for. What is causing these high prices? Not low supply and high demand, which is what they teach you in school. In fact, supply is high—domestic oil production is at its highest point in years, higher under this allegedly business-hating president than under oilmen Bush and Cheney. And demand has been low because of the economy, although it’s now picking up.
No, experts blame a lot of the increase on fervid speculation in the oil markets, and a chief reason for a lot of that speculation is anxiety in those markets about a possible war with Iran. Said anxiety, in turn, is heightened every time a politician blusters about how we have no choice now but to go start that war. So this kind of rhetoric is a nice little two-fer for Republicans, who get to sound like tough guys and can also take comfort in knowing that the more they talk up attacking Iran, the more they’re doing their small part to keep prices high.
Now let’s look to jobs. As you may know, while we’ve been getting these hopeful job reports these last few months, there is one sector that’s been lagging notably: the public sector. In fact, during 2011 the public sector across the country—state and local governments, in addition to the feds—laid off massive numbers of people. Public-sector job losses averaged 22,000 a month in 2011. State and municipal governments are laying people off mainly for two reasons: the economy, which means they’re bringing in less revenue, and the drastic cuts in federal aid, which have forced the layoffs and firings of nearly half a million public-sector workers in the last two years.
True, Republicans want smaller budgets on ideological grounds. But they also know very well that the more domestic discretionary spending cuts they can force, and the more public employees they can make states and cities shave off their payrolls, the greater the negative effect on the overall employment picture. If those nearly half-million people were still working, what would the unemployment rate be? Maybe down to a flat 8 percent.
Lately, though, things are starting to look worrisome on that front for Republicans. In February, the public sector cut just 6,000 workers, well down from last year’s average. This indicates that the party might not be able to count for long on the public-sector numbers dragging down the private-sector ones. Hmmm. What to do about that?
Interestingly and conveniently, exactly what the Republicans on Capitol Hill are doing right now! They have been signaling lately that the budget numbers they agreed to with Democrats last year in the debt deal need to be revisited, and the cuts must be even deeper. Speaker John Boehner is open about the possibility of reneging. He has sent some mixed signals—he’s also talked about trying to get the House to accept a transportation bill that the Senate has already passed by the eye-poppingly bipartisan margin of 85–11. New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer says the bill can create 3 million jobs. The House returns to Washington next Monday. Where would you put the odds that this House of Representatives will vote, less than eight months before the election, to support a bill that Chuck Schumer boasts can produce 3 million jobs?
Every out-party does a little discreet cheering for the economy to be weak. But the GOP has put itself in a unique position. By opposing everything Obama wanted with such ferocity; by saying all those thousands of times that he had no clue about the economy; by sending out a parade of presidential candidates, from the semi-serious to the clown posse, all of whose central criticism of Obama is that he killed the economy—in all of these ways the party has more invested in economic failure than any out-party I can remember in my lifetime. Its best hope for now is gas prices, but even they eventually get lower, usually by late summer. Beyond that, all the GOP has to rely on is Mitt Romney’s unstoppable charisma.