Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is It Really All About the Economy?

It's the economy, stupid helped Bill Clinton, a relatively unknown governor from Arkansas score a stunning victory over George H.W. Bush. Indeed, Bush 41 was so popular as a result of the Persian Gulf War that few of the front-line Democratic candidates wanted to run against him and risk a beating that would perhaps tarnish their careers. But when the economy went down the toilet, Clinton used this issue to turn the tables on Bush.

A recent article with the same name also discusses Ronald Reagan’s presidential success story around the question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? The article sums up with thoughts that are almost universally accepted by the mainstream media along with most voters:

To be sure, national security has also shown up routinely in issues voters' cited as most important in U.S. Presidential elections, particularly if the nation was at war. Social / cultural issues also appear frequently. But no issue drives votes like the economy. In voting, as in so many other aspects of life,"economics structures the debate."

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll further supports this view. When registered voters were asked about the single most important issue in their choice for president, the economy was easily number one with 41% choosing it. Next were the Iraq War with 10% and health care with 9%. Other issues like abortion, immigration, and gun control barely registered a response.

So if the economy is so damned important, why is the present presidential race so close especially considering how serious our economic problems are?

But there are also some other questions to consider:

- Why were the good financial times during the latter part of the Clinton Administration that yielded budget surpluses not enough to deliver the presidency to his VP Al Gore?

- Why did Ohio, the state that was the most economically devastated during the 2004 election year, deliver the decisive electoral votes to win George W. Bush a second term?

- Why are Michigan, this year’s most economically devastated state, along with Ohio (not too far behind), still toss-up states on the electoral map?

If nothing else, these questions suggest that thinking the economy is really what elections are all about may be a bit simplistic if not outright wrong.

Here is the introductory paragraph of liberal author Thomas Frank’s book,
What's the Matter With Kansas?

The poorest county in America isn’t in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority of 80 percent.

Frank goes on the theorize that with the Republican downplaying of economic issues in favor or ‘morals’ issues for those in rural America, these people are duped into voting against their own economic self-interests.

I find this theory to be very plausible. While the opinion polls do not point to these ‘morals’ issues as significant reasons to vote for someone, I believe they overlook these issues as reasons to vote against someone. In many cases one or several of these issues can be deal-breakers when deciding whether to vote for someone. Especially for socially conservative rural folks, how many of these people would ever vote for a pro-choice candidate? Or one who is in favor of gay rights? Or maybe one who favors gun control? In this case, the formula for Republican success is to reinforce these possible deal-breakers in their campaigns. And if they hit pay dirt on at least one of them, the Republican gets the vote regardless of other issues like the economy. In addition to rural folks, conservative Catholics everywhere who used to be reliably Democratic are also defecting to the Republican side over abortion in enough numbers to possibly decide the election in their favor.

As an example of downplaying the economy, while John Kerry in his presidential campaign spoke up about the souring economy for many workers, the Republicans in power chided him for his “doom and gloom” economic outlook. And less than a year ago, who can forget
Fred Thompson's remarks at a Republican presidential debate in economically ravaged Dearborn, Michigan?

As far as the economic prosperity of the future is concerned, I think it’s a different story. I think if you look at the short term, it’s rosy. I think if you look at a 10-year projection, it’s rosy.

More recently we have Phil Gramm, one of John McCain’s economic advisers (at the time) who referred to those complaining about the economy as a "nation of whiners" and less than a week ago McCain himself saying first that the "fundamentals of our economy are strong" and when embarrassed by the media for saying this, then abruptly shifting to say the fundamentals are "at great risk."

And then there is the elephant in the room we must talk about. Is one of those deal-breakers race? I don’t believe there are any polls that ask if someone would not vote for someone because of their race. And even if they did ask, how many people would be forthcoming enough to answer honestly if race was indeed a deal-breaker?

I don’t want to believe in a possibility that Obama will lose due to racism. We are better than that, I would like to believe. But articles like this one titled Obama, Race, And Undecided Voters are a sobering reminder of the reality of racism that still exists in the US.

Especially with the economy in such dire straits it may still possibly come to the fore in deciding this election. With the debates coming up, Barack Obama has a chance to attack John McCain for his alliance with many of the Bush Administration’s economic policies that he can argue has caused much of the mess we are in. And while there may not be much he can do about racism, perhaps he can work harder to connect with enough voters to get them to vote in their own economic self-interest instead of being sidetracked on divisive ‘moral issues’ that the Republicans will try to counter with. I believe how well he succeeds in this regard will more than anything else determine the winner in November.

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