Saturday, September 29, 2012

Blow One for 'The Gipper': Why 2012 Isn't 1980

Over the next few weeks you will hear an awful lot of Republicans compare 2012 to 1980 as they desperately attempt to paint Barack Obama as the second coming of Jimmy Carter.  Funny, for a party that has had it up to here with blaming George Bush for the Great Recession of 2008, they can’t seem to stop running against the 39th President.  It’s become a time-honored tradition among the faithful because it gives them permission to worship at the alter of the Great One, the savior of our capitalist system.

Interestingly enough the prevailing logic among many conservatives is that Ronald Reagan inherited a far worse economy from Jimmy Carter than Barack Obama inherited from George Bush. The reason for this specious claim is based on several extremely misleading and highly selective economic indicators, almost all of them having to do with inflation.

True, inflation was considerably higher when Reagan took office – along with corresponding interest rates – but the economy overall was in far better shape from 1980 to 1981 than it was from 2008 to 2009.  That’s not to say that things weren’t bad in 1980, but, so far as anyone has been able to deduce, we were not headed for another Great Depression that year.  All but the most shameless supply-siders will tell you that, absent some form of government intervention, the economy would’ve gone completely off the cliff in 2008.  While it is certainly fair game to question the effectiveness of policies that went into effect afterwards, it is not even remotely reasonable to deny reality simply because it differs with your ideology.  The fact is when you compare all the data, Obama had a far worse crisis on his hands than Reagan had on his.

Most Republicans know this.  That’s why they’ve given up the old “Are you better off” line.  Instead, they’ve accepted as a given that the economy was in pretty bad shape four years ago.  What they maintain is that Obama hasn’t done enough to turn it around; hence the 1980 comparison.

Unfortunately for them that claim, like the one above, is also likely to fail.  The reason is quite simple: 2012 doesn’t even remotely compare to 1980.  Just look at the data below:

Economic Comparison (May 1980 vs. May 2012)

Every single economic indicator, save for nonfarm payrolls, was in the red in 1980.  By comparison, every economic indicator in 2012 is in the black.  Furthermore, the economy was continuing on a dowward spiral in 1980, while in 2012 it continues to improve.  One is certainly entitled to question the robustness of the Obama recovery, but to invoke the spectre of Jimmy Carter and 1980 is laughable.  Most voters know this all too well.  While they may not be satisfied with the progress the economy is making, they are acutely aware of the difference between forward and backward.

But even if one were to be gullible enough to ignore the data, there is an even greater problem that Republicans face with the 1980 / 2012 comparison.  Barack Obama is no Jimmy Carter and Mitt Romney, save for a similar haircut, is certainly no Ronald Reagan.  Even the most partisan of Democrats will admit that by the summer of 1980, Carter looked like a beaten man, while Reagan exuded confidence.  The latter looked far more presidential during the fall campaign, and on election day he routed his opponent in what became for conservatives a watershed moment in political history.

Thirty-two years later the roles are reversed.  Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent, looks far more confident and, yes, comfortable in his role as president.  He’s been tested both by his opponents and even by members of his own party and has emerged out of it a stronger, more determined candidate.  Over the last two and a half years, he has presided over an economy that has netted more than four million new jobs.  The only thing he has in common with Jimmy Carter is his party affiliation.

Meanwhile, his Republican opponent looks more and more like a cross between Ross Perot and Michael Dukakis.  Mitt Romney’s campaign has been sloppy and undisciplined.  His inability to connect with voters and his frequent gaffes have made him the talk of every late night comedian in the country.  If Republicans were looking to make a connection between 2012 and 1980, they appear to have succeeded, though not the way they had hoped for.  As the campaign rapidly draws to a conclusion, it is Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama, who is looking more and more like a beaten man.  Next to Ronald Reagan, Romney looks like a cheap hologram.  And, like all imitations, it is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Time is starting to run out on the Jipper.  He has a little more than a month to reverse his fortunes and stave off what is starting to look more and more like a rout.  For starters, it might be helpful if he and his party finally got it through their collective heads that the Democrat running for reelection this year isn’t Jimmy Carter.   


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