Over the last few months, a number of prominent political columnists have pointed to historian and social critic Richard Hofstadter to explain what is happening to the Republican Party. 1964's The Paranoid Style in American Politics and his 1954 essay, "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," among others, tell us why so many Republicans are lashing out at town halls and tea parties. And because the protesters make a lot of noise, wave disgusting signs and are embraced by a major political party, they get a lot of attention.
Here's the rub: their craziness turns away those who do not already agree with them, and yet the GOP is beginning to pull ahead in the generic congressional ballot match-up. How can this be?
Perhaps it's because while we're all hopped up on Hofstadter and understanding what Sam Tanenhaus defines as The Death of Conservatism, we've forgotten about another important contingent of Americans: low-information 2008 Obama voters.
Like those who took part in Arianna's 'One Year Later' debate last week, the past year has left these people feeling discouraged, apathetic, or worse: betrayed. But unlike news junkies, they don't look at Obama and see someone who misunderstood Washington or has been too accommodating. These people look at Obama and believe he has turned on them.
The latest unemployment rate is 10.2 percent -- a 26-year high. Despite positive numbers in April, a majority of Americans believe we're on the "wrong track." In New Jersey and Virginia, 9 in 10 voters described being worried about the direction of the nation's economy in 2010. Never mind which way they voted -- that's not the point. The point is what they're feeling, and the message is clear: Americans are not confident in our economic recovery.
The economy is the maker or breaker of a successful presidency. We forget (if we ever learned) that inflation is what handcuffed Lyndon Johnson halfway through his term, exposing other vulnerabilities and ultimately toppling him. In a survey of more recent history, John B. Judis displays how clearly the unemployment rate reflects a president's unpopularity in times of boom and bust.
This is what we have been missing. While Republican leaders and mouthpieces are continually setting new standards for outrageousness, the more subtle -- and more damaging -- lies receive less attention. And that is: 'The Democrats' economic recovery has failed. And if it did anything for anyone, it certainly wasn't for people like you.'
Maybe it's time to put down the Hofstadter and pick up the writings of Everett Carll Ladd, Jr. He's the political scientist who, in the 1970s, began writing about the contributor/beneficiary dynamic that led to the collapse of the Democratic coalition. Ladd wrote of how the New Deal majority was put off by the Great Society's focus on the poor, making them feel like "contributors rather than beneficiaries" of government initiative.
It's similar to today, except in our time of bank bailouts-and-bonuses, members of the 2008 Obama coalition believe their money is moving up the financial food-chain instead of down. Ladd also picked up on how voters can be of two minds at once. For example: those in the '70s who believed the government should do more for the poor -- and that government should spend less on welfare. Today, you're likely to find voters who support government action to save the economy (something Republicans opposed, but we'll get back to that), yet believe the government won't save their economy.
Ask a low-information Obama voter if they think people like them benefited from the stimulus program and you're bound to hear a 'no.' And can you blame them? Chances are they haven't been to recovery.gov; they're more likely to have heard TV reports about auto executives or bankers benefiting from government injections.
This is a failure of the Obama administration communicating the good they've done. It's not a pretty job. After all, who wants to boast of 'successfully' holding unemployment down to 10.2 percent?
Republicans should get some credit for discouraging this set of Obama voters, too. They have no other choice but to try to pin bad economic news on Democratic policies. The Republicans voted against economic recovery because they wanted Obama and the Democrats to own it, and once they did that, they were all in. They had to see to it that it failed -- not in reality (they took the funds for their districts); but in the minds of the American people.
So even though the unemployment rate would certainly be worse and GDP would be shrinking like it was at the end of the Bush years instead of growing like it is today, they can't let voters think that. No, look at last Sunday's talk shows and you'll find Michael Steele and Mike Pence arguing the economic recovery program increased the unemployment rate. Believe what you want on whether the stimulus was prudent or not, but to shout that spending billions on public works is "not creating jobs"?
Democrats should and do refute these wild accusations. Unfortunately, it's difficult for them to reserve the brunt of their outrage for lies about the economy when the same Republicans cheer on protesters waving signs equating health care reform with Nazi death camps.
It's an easy score to go after the inflammatory, though it's ultimately misguided. For when ranking voter priorities, who do they punish? The party of twisted sign-wielding protesters? Or the party they trusted to fix the economy and didn't?
That being said, things change. The economy might get better. Republican challengers will be defined. But this backward contributor/beneficiary dynamic is what's sinking the Democrats in 2010. Even if the economy recovers, they risk losing the credit for it unless they focus on making their coalition believe they are the beneficiaries of their economic policies.