Belmont Club

The Big Top

Jay Cost argues at The Weekly Standard that President Obama can’t build a winning coalition on the economy he will have in the 2012 election. Moreover, he cannot change the economy before then. The problem is: maybe the Republican’s can’t either.

There are three significant issues or factors that will keep President Obama from forging a coalition of almost-everybody, à la Reagan in 1984 or Johnson in 1964, in the 2012 election. The first is the continuing weakness of the economy. Obviously, jobs remain a problem – and this weakness is also manifested in the rising cost of gasoline and food. The second is the president’s health care bill. And the third is the budget deficit.

The problem of the deficit is especially nettlesome because it represents, not a so much a split between Democrats and Republicans, but between Washington insiders and outsiders. Although the Democrats may have been the worst offenders when it came to expanding government, many Republicans appear to have been captured by the system and willing to keep going with the flow, albeit at a slower rate than their rivals. Therefore — so the conventional wisdom goes — they cannot fight the deficit from the outside. The deficit can be fought from the outside, but only at the cost of splitting the GOP.

The last time deficits spurred a rebellion from the outside the process resulted in Bill Clinton being elected to the White House. Cost writes:

If we think of the deficit as a normally dormant issue that only intrudes upon the political discourse when it grows well beyond the long-term historic average, then the Perot candidacy suddenly begins to make sense. It was a reaction to unusually large budget deficits in 1991 and 1992. The deficits in these years were still smaller than in the mid-1980s, which suggests that there is no automatic trigger for the deficit to emerge as an issue — but the fact that Perot was able to exploit it is very telling for 2012, when the deficit will be much larger than anything we have seen (excluding 2009 and 2010, of course).

Democratic strategists may be hoping that the Tea Party plays the role of Perot in 2012, and by splitting the incumbent’s opposition, indirectly lead to a second term for Barack Obama. A poster at “Democrats for Progress” put it succinctly:

I love the smell of internecine warfare in the morning. Smells like victory. Let’s hope they form an actual third party.

Laura Chapin, a Democratic communications consultant, advances a similar narrative: the Tea Party is hijacking the Republicans, dooming their chance among “moderates” and “independents” in the 2012 general.

It’s entirely possible that hell has just frozen over. I agree with outgoing Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams, once described as “Karl Rove 2.0.” In his straight-no-chaser comments after exiting the state GOP chairman’s race, Wadhams told Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post, “I’m tired of the nuts who have no grasp of what the state party’s role is.”

He’s right. The Tea Party’s ideological rigidity cost Colorado Republicans a Senate and a gubernatorial seat in 2010 and in all likelihood will cost them a presidential election in 2012. Their intransigence means Colorado Republicans can’t get a moderate candidate to win in the primary, and can’t get a conservative to win in the general. And it turns off the independent voters who are key to winning Colorado–the electorate is evenly split, one third Democrats, one third Republicans, and one third unaffiliated.

Taken together, Jay Cost’s observation about deficits and the Democratic strategy set up an interesting argument. The more the President wrecks the economy, the greater the grassroots revolt becomes. But the hotter the grassroots fire rages, the less able the Republican Party becomes to carry the standard of rebellion and the more it is split. The fatal flaw of the Republicans is to be so much like the Democrats they cannot join the rebels. The fatal flaw of the rebels is that no third party can win the general election. Hence, the optimum Democratic strategy is to keep screwing things up because it will always work in their favor unless things collapse completely, which of course, will never happen.

The problem for people like Chapin is that many of the newly elected Republicans understand the problem all too well. Fred Barnes describes the incremental strategy of budget cuts in which timing will play a key part. The trick, Barnes seems to argue, is to keep the Republican/Tea Party coalition together until D-Day, 2012. To win, they have to win at the right time. To placate the activists, Congressional leadership must be content to campaign in the political equivalent of North Africa and Italy, to hit the deficit hard, but not decisively and to hold their fire until they can sweep up the steps of the Capitol like men in Saving Private Ryan. Except in this case, it will be Paul Ryan. If they hit too early, the Dems can shut the government down and make the Republicans look like the enemy of Social Security.

Some of the most disgruntled folks in Washington these days are conservative Republicans in Congress. They believe their party has abandoned the cause of deep spending cuts that spurred the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterm election. They say their leaders are needlessly settling for small, incremental cuts.

Moreover, this demand for bigger cuts and defunding of liberal programs—immediately—comes from prominent members of the House, not just excitable freshmen. “This is our mice or men moment,” according to Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Allowing Democrats more time to negotiate “will only delay a confrontation that must come,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the House Study Committee, added: “We’ve made some solid first downs. Now it’s time to look to the end zone.”

The end zone is far away, however, and impatience won’t get Republicans there. Impatience is not a strategy. It may lead to a government shutdown with unknown results. To enact the sweeping cuts they desire, Republicans must hold the House and capture the Senate and White House in the 2012 election. Then they’ll control Washington. Now they don’t.

Barnes adds, “There’s every reason to believe the incremental strategy would continue to succeed. Democrats are flummoxed by it. They’d like to block more cuts, but they’ve been unable to explain why spending reductions of a few billion dollars at a clip are unacceptable.”

The other problem is that the Tea Party has another weapon in their arsenal besides forming a Third Party. It is taking over the Republican Party through the primary process. There will be no Third Party, just a different Second Party. Although strategists like Chapin believe this will alienate “independents” and “moderates” that runs counter to Jay Costs much more telling observation. The Democratic Party, by its actions, has made it impossible to form a winning coalition in 2012. That necessarily implies that those voters are now up for grabs. The argument that their political rivals cannot put together a coalition to the sweep them up begs the question.

Cost predicts that President Obama will be facing rough weather in 2012. “If there is nothing that President Obama and his team can do to resolve the budget deficit problem between now and next November, and if it does indeed figure largely in the campaign, we should expect a highly negative reelection campaign from the president. Perhaps it will not be on the order of LBJ in 1964, but it probably will be more negative than what Bill Clinton put forth in 1996 or George W. Bush offered in 2004.”

That is of course, unless “unprecedented events”, which as Cost puts it, “statistical models have an extremely difficult time accounting for” intervene. But absent that, the problem comes down to which side can put together a coalition that best catches the likely political winds in 2012. Enter the gladiators.

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