The President visits a middle-class neighborhood in Ohio and boldly pronounces, “We’re on the right track.” Nearby, Democratic Governor Ted Strickland is doing his best to put a happy face on the dire situation as he attempts to convince a reporter that things aren’t that bad. “I don’t believe this is going to be a terrible year for Democrats. The verdict has not been reached.” One wonders whom he is trying to convince: the reporter or himself.
The unemployment rate in Ohio is 10.3 percent, not quite as high as other parts of the country, but, given the strategic importance of the state in 2008, and the likelihood it will play a crucial role in 2012, a dangerously high number nonetheless. Worse for Democrats, that number is higher in the northern part of the state, where they have traditionally enjoyed an edge among voters. Strickland and Obama are entitled to their opinions, but from the vantage point of virtually every political pundit, not to mention the vast majority of Ohioans, who are growing increasingly frustrated, both appear to be in a state of denial.
Yes, it’s true that all is not lost. And yes, there is still time to turn things around and stop the runaway freight train that is headed straight for them this November. But to do that, the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party as a whole must snap out of their private little Idaho and admit that their strategy isn’t working. Touring the country and saying with a straight face that everything is just peachy-keen when millions are suffering makes about as much sense as telling a cancer patient to light up a cigarette.
Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in The New York Times last week titled “This is not a Recovery” spoke to this point.
“The small sliver of truth in claims of continuing recovery is the fact that G.D.P. is still rising: we’re not in a classic recession, in which everything goes down. But so what? The important question is whether growth is fast enough to bring down sky-high unemployment. We need about 2.5 percent growth just to keep unemployment from rising, and much faster growth to bring it significantly down. Yet growth is currently running somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, with a good chance that it will slow even further in the months ahead. Will the economy actually enter a double dip, with G.D.P. shrinking? Who cares? If unemployment rises for the rest of this year, which seems likely, it won’t matter whether the G.D.P. numbers are slightly positive or slightly negative. All of this is obvious. Yet policy makers are in denial.”
Yep, that just about nails it.
For well over a year and a half Krugman has been warning Democrats that this day was coming. He boldly predicted the stimulus was too small to be effective, and warned of a repeat of the Japanese lost decade. His critics decried him and called him out as over-reactionary. And yet here we stand less than two months before the midterms and those very same critics are in retreat, that is when they aren’t still in denial. Whether Democrats want to believe it or not, they are in for the fight of their lives, and they have no one else to blame but themselves. From Obama to Timothy Geithner to every Blue Dog in Congress. The very best minds within the Party have taken a mandate and turned it into a fire sale. Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, well done.
OK, so now what? Recriminations are useless. There isn’t going to be a second stimulus; not even the most optimistic liberal Democrat believes there is an ice cube’s chance in hell of passing one anyway. Options are limited. The Party of No has zero interest in allowing Democrats to pass any legislation that can even remotely ameliorate the malaise gripping the nation. And why should they? So far, standing on the sidelines and watching the building burn to the ground has proven quite beneficial to their immediate fortunes. Why screw things up and give the Dems a victory now?
No, the only chance Democrats have this Fall will come by way of coming clean. There are no happy faces, no bandaids big enough to patch the wound in the collective electorate. To coin a phrase, “They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!” So stop saying things are upbeat when they’re not, which only makes them madder and that much more likely to vote Republican.
It is time for a bold, but hardly new, approach. For starters, Obama and the Democrats can take a page out of Bill Clinton’s playbook and start a “I feel your pain” tour. Seriously, why not try a little empathy? Of all his political talents, none served Clinton better than his ability to relate to people's suffering and make it his own. It wouldn't hurt Obama to get a little misty-eyed and at least try to find a heart. Intellect can only get you so far. Confession is also good for the soul and to be honest Democrats have a lot to confess. It might actually improve their approval ratings among voters if they suddenly developed a sense of transparency, even if it is a little late in the game. Coming out and admitting mistakes were made and damage done isn’t the political suicide some might think it is; given the mood of the country, anything other than a mea culpa would only add insult to injury.
Secondly, they can take Frank Rich’s advice and stop blaming Bush for the recession and start warning the public of just how extreme many of the GOP / Tea Party candidates are this year. In deed given their stances, Bush, by comparison, was practically a liberal. From privatizing Social Security, to, in some instances, abolishing Medicare, to making the Bush tax cuts permanent, to the threat of a government shutdown should Republicans take back the Congress, Democrats can draw clear distinctions between them and the GOP that could begin to resonate with voters. In some instances, they are starting to do that, and in others, the GOP is doing it for them. If Harry Reid manages to hold onto his Senate seat this November, he should send Sharon Angle a dozen flowers as a thank you. Seldom has anyone in politics thrown away such an opportunity as that accorded the Republican nominee.
Things are looking grim. While the Senate will most likely remain in Democratic control, the House is anybody’s guess. Each day that goes by, more and more voters join the ranks of the restless and the weary. As the unemployment rate grows, so too do Republican prospects. And yet Obama and the Democrats remain in Fantasy Land, mired in a flawed strategy and completely in denial about their situation.