Saturday, September 26, 2009

Same Old Same Old?

You hear this sort of thing all the time, I told myself as I read's report on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's keynote address to the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island, Mich.

Parties that are out of power are always saying this kind of thing. Sometimes they're just whistling past the graveyard. Other times, it turns out that they know what they're talking about. It's difficult to tell whether it's bluster and bravado or legitimate insight.

Anyway, Crist said he believes Barack Obama is charting a course that will produce the same outcome as Jimmy Carter in 1980 — in other words, a resounding defeat.

"It may happen again," Crist said. "I believe that the people have seen that they wanted a change but not this much. Not this kind, and not this way. America is awake and we're coming back."

Crist may be on to something — Obama's approval ratings have dropped dramatically — but I'm not sure the America of the late 1970s is analogous to the America of 30 years later.

The change that Americans sought in 1976 was about a lot of things, not just economics. In almost every respect, the election of 2008 was about economics. For awhile, it seemed that the election would be about things like the war in Iraq and maybe the lack of preparedness for disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Then, for awhile, it looked like the election might also be about escalating food prices and $4/gallon gas. But the economic meltdown refocused attention quickly.

The thing that the 1976 and 2008 elections really had in common was the fact that voters wanted to punish an unpopular Republican president — but Richard Nixon had resigned two years before the '76 election and George W. Bush was not on the ballot in 2008. So Gerald Ford and John McCain took the abuse that was really aimed at others — although it was clear in 1976 that part of the punishment Ford took from the voters was directed at him for pardoning Nixon.

Unemployment became an issue during Carter's presidency, but it was really a matter of bad timing. If Ford had beaten Carter, he would have had to deal with the same thing. It was part of the inevitable readjustment from a wartime to a peacetime economy, which began under Ford. That didn't help Carter, though, because things were exacerbated by the energy crisis and the Iranian hostage situation — and, rightly or wrongly, voters did appear to blame those things on Carter.

In Obama's case, I don't get the sense that Americans blame him for the economic meltdown a year ago — or the fact that unemployment was clearly escalating by the time voters went to the polls in November. In fact, the economic conditions probably made it easier for many middle–of–the–road voters to vote for him.

But they do hold him responsible for developments, good or bad, since he took office. If unemployment starts to drop, they will get the sense that things are getting better. If unemployment continues to go up, they will get the sense that things are getting worse. It's the only economic gauge that many Americans can comprehend, and it is a pretty good one because consumer spending is so vital to a healthy economy.

That is why I have been urging that job creation be given a high priority. Even if it is make–work projects. Because make–work provides an income, even a temporary one, that allows workers to pay the rent and put food on the table — and maybe a few other things. Consumer spending, not government spending, is what is going to turn things around. The stimulus plan needed fewer pet projects and more policies, like tax credits for businesses that hire Americans, that encourage job creation. All policies should be promoting job creation until the economy revives.

But, as usual, Democrats have been distracted by other things, and their united front has dissolved in recent months. I recall similar problems for Carter in the late 1970s. At the time, many people blamed it on the fact that Carter was an outsider. The quality that made him so appealing to voters in 1976 worked against him in office. Democrats in Congress stopped working with him when they concluded that neither he nor his staff knew how to get things done in Washington.

I haven't felt that was the case with Obama. True, he only had a few years' experience dealing with the power culture in Washington, but my take is that he knew more about it when he became president than Carter did in 1977.

Perhaps the real problem for Democrats is something I have seen before. It is what really makes Democrats different from Republicans. It isn't ideology. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats of Abraham Lincoln's day bears the slightest resemblance to the modern versions in that regard.

But one thing about Democrats never seems to change. Will Rogers said it best — "I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat."

No matter how united Democrats may seem at first, it usually doesn't take long for congressional Democrats to scatter, like ducklings, each pursuing his/her own interests. Bill Clinton couldn't keep Democrats in Congress in line. Neither could Jimmy Carter. Or Lyndon Johnson. In fact, you might have to go back to John F. Kennedy — or, more than a decade earlier, to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman — to find a time when a Democratic president and a Democrat–controlled Congress worked together.

What Crist — who is running for U.S. Senate — suggests is not necessarily implausible. But it seems, to me, to be too simplistic (and too easy) to compare Obama to Carter. It implies — to those who have studied history and those who remember the Carter years — that a charismatic Reaganesque Republican will emerge in 2012.

But, in 1980, Reagan was already in position to capture the nomination, following his narrow loss to Gerald Ford four years earlier. No modern Republican is so clearly positioned to be the 2012 nominee, which means the battle for the nomination is likely to be even more of a scrap than last year's was.

Of course, if Democrats live down to their historical standards, a Reaganesque figure may yet emerge. I would advise Democrats who live in the fantasy world that insists that the 2010 election will go the Democrats' way because the elections of 2006 and 2008 did need to develop a thick skin — and a good sense of humor.

"You've got to be an optimist to be a Democrat," Rogers said, "and you've got to be a humorist to stay one."

Stay tuned.

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