Friday, October 16, 2009

Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom can be a useful thing, but it isn't infallible.

It's generally well–informed speculation. It tends to be based on historical experience, which is particularly relevant to students of history. History students have learned that history does repeat itself.

In December 2007 — just prior to what has since been acknowledged as the beginning of the recession — conventional wisdom said the war in Iraq would be the big issue in the 2008 campaign. This was the same conventional wisdom that was sure the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton and wasn't sure whether the Republicans would nominate Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani but was pretty sure the GOP wouldn't nominate John McCain.

About the only thing that was right about that forecast was that the Democratic nomination would be groundbreaking. But Hillary wasn't the groundbreaking nominee.

It's been interesting to watch the evolution of conventional wisdom in the first nine months of the Obama presidency.

Last spring, conventional wisdom painted a bleak picture for Republicans for the third straight election cycle. But as the year has progressed, the outlook for the midterms of 2010 has gradually improved for Republicans.

And this week, Charlie Cook asked, in the National Journal, "Are The Democrats Ready For 10 Percent Unemployment?"

As a student of history, that seems like a loaded question to me. The obvious answer appears to be "No."

Historically, midterm elections have almost always been rough for the incumbent party. The reasons vary, but generally the exceptions to the rule have been years in which the focus was on international crises.

When things are bad domestically, voters hold the incumbent party responsible, especially in the midterm elections. That is the lesson of history. In the last half century, the exceptions were 1962, when Democrats benefited from Kennedy's leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 2002, when Republicans benefited from a surge in public support in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

In today's world, it certainly isn't inconceivable that an international crisis could occur in the next 12 months. But without one it seems the Democrats are likely to sustain some losses.

Oh, no, I can almost hear my Democratic friends protesting. All this was Bush's fault.

Cook has the answer to that:
"Polls may show a majority of Americans understand that this recession started under President George W. Bush, but every day, President Obama, and inferentially his party, take on a bit more ownership. By the 2010 midterm elections, the economy will completely belong to Obama and Democrats."

Over the years, Cook has proven himself to be a generally reliable political forecaster. He's been as nonpartisan in his predictions as anyone I've seen, and his reasoning tends to be sound.

In the spring, he anticipated a difficult midterm election for Republicans. But, as job losses have mounted, his opinion has changed. And today he see the dire state of unemployment as the critical element in next year's elections — even if the most optimistic predictions of economic growth turn out to be on target.

"What should concern Democrats is that while there is a diversity of views about just how much the economy will grow next year, the views of both optimists and pessimists converge on the politically important question of unemployment," Cook writes. "The consensus is there will be very, very little job growth next year."

It is logical to anticipate that. It has happened before.

I think Cook is right when he says, "The distinct possibility, and maybe even probability, that unemployment will be hovering around 10 percent for a solid year should petrify." It is based on historical experience.

But that only tells half of the story, I think. Perhaps the other half is best described as the history of inexperience.

It was a unique coalition that elected Obama. It included some groups — young people, blacks and other minorities — who haven't been electorally active in the past. Many were drawn into the process by Obama's charisma, not unlike millions of Americans who participated in the 1992 election solely because of the charisma of independent candidate Ross Perot.

I've seen no numbers concerning what the Perot supporters did in 1994. How many went back to their old ways and didn't participate because Perot wasn't on the ballot? How many continued to participate? And which party won their support?

The answers to those questions might provide some insight into the behavior of voters who are attracted to charismatic candidates. But Perot was an independent candidate. Obama was a major party's nominee.

Many of the same questions that could have been asked of Perot's supporters could be asked of some of the untraditional voters who helped Obama win — and then some. Their party preference was clear enough in 2008. Has it changed? Why?

If they still support the Democrats' objectives, can they be lured back to the polls when Obama is absent from the ballot?

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