Po­lit­i­cal game of ‘hot potato’

No one wants to get stuck with re­spon­si­bil­ity for caus­ing a re­ces­sion

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Jonah Gold­berg

Warn­ing: What you are about to read is a deeply cyn­i­cal view of the 2012 elec­tions. If you’re look­ing for pup­pies and rain­bows, check back with me an­other time. Many con­ser­va­tives think this is the most im­por­tant elec­tion in our life­times be­cause we des­per­ately need to re­verse the dam­age done by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and get the econ­omy mov­ing again.

In­deed, each of the re­main­ing GOP hope­fuls makes some ver­sion of this ar­gu­ment: He will fix what Pres­i­dent Obama (or Washington) has bro­ken. The pres­i­dent, mean­while, like a lit­tle kid smash­ing a clock with a ham­mer, says he just needs a lit­tle more time to fix ev­ery­thing.

Now, I do, in fact, hold onto the view that pres­i­dents mat­ter. But this is a more con­tro­ver­sial view among con­ser­va­tives than one might think, at least when it comes to eco­nomic pol­icy. When looked at from the proper al­ti­tude, the no­tion that the pres­i­dent “runs” the econ­omy is fairly ridicu­lous. The pres­i­dent doesn’t have a “Cre­ate Jobs” but­ton on his desk he can press.

But he does have a whole bunch of mon­key wrenches he can throw into the eco­nomic ma­chin­ery. Like a drunk blind guy with a blow­torch: There are in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties for mak­ing things worse, far fewer for mak­ing them bet­ter.

I think Her­bert Hoover and Franklin D. Roo­sevelt turned a mere de­pres­sion into the Great De­pres­sion. Not ev­ery­thing FDR did was bad, but very lit­tle in the New Deal made the econ­omy bet­ter, and much made it worse. This is a con­tro­ver­sial po­si­tion, with many smart peo­ple on both sides of the propo­si­tion.

What is not con­tro­ver­sial is that FDR got the po­lit­i­cal credit for end­ing the De­pres­sion even though it re­ally didn’t end un­til he stopped try­ing to fix it, and the econ­omy didn’t boom un­til af­ter he died. Of course, Hoover got the blame for start­ing the Great De­pres­sion be­cause it hap­pened on his watch. To this day, Her­bert Hoover re­mains po­lit­i­cally ra­dioac­tive.

Sim­i­larly, lib­er­als con­tinue to be­lieve that big-gov­ern­ment poli­cies are ef­fec­tive in no small part be­cause they think FDR fixed the econ­omy with the New Deal.

Here’s the prob­lem: If you look around the world, it turns out that which­ever party came in to “fix” the Great De­pres­sion, af­ter it was well un­der way, got credit for end­ing it. And who­ever was in power when it started got the blame.

In 1932, Amer­i­can vot­ers threw out the Repub­li­cans, and the econ­omy im­proved, so vot­ers re­warded the Democrats. “In Bri­tain and Australia,” writes Prince­ton’s Larry Bar­tels, “vot­ers re­placed La­bor Gov­ern­ments with con­ser­va­tives and the econ­omy im­proved. In Swe­den, vot­ers re­placed Con­ser­va­tives with Lib­er­als, then with So­cial Democrats, and the econ­omy im­proved.”

And so on. Who­ever hap­pened to be at the switch when things got a lit­tle bet­ter got re­warded. Mr. Bar­tels ar­gues that if the re­ces­sion of 1938 had come two years ear­lier, dur­ing the 1936 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — al­legedly the most ide­o­log­i­cally re­align­ing elec­tion of the 20th cen­tury — FDR al­most cer­tainly would have been a one-ter­mer. Sim­i­larly, if en­ergy prices and the econ­omy had im­proved late in 1980, Jimmy Carter might have been re-elected and to­day would be re­mem­bered as a very suc­cess­ful pres­i­dent.

While Pres­i­dent Obama is re­spon­si­ble for many bad poli­cies, right now it seems his fate is re­lated di­rectly to the price of gas.

The les­son for 2012, for cyn­ics at least, is not that Repub­li­cans should vote for Mitt Rom­ney — or any other Re­pub­li­can — be­cause his poli­cies will cre­ate jobs and get the econ­omy mov­ing again. Rather, it is that when the econ­omy re­ally gets mov­ing again, Amer­i­cans will as­cribe those ad­vances to Re­pub­li­can poli­cies. Like­wise, if Mr. Obama stays in of­fice for an­other four years, odds are good — though per­haps not great — that the econ­omy even­tu­ally will start to get bet­ter and Amer­i­cans will give him credit for a re­bound he, in fact, de­layed more than cre­ated.

Now ob­vi­ously, it’s all more complicated than this. Pres­i­dents do things that af­fect the long-term tra­jec­tory of the econ­omy, for good or for ill. And they do other things that are very im­por­tant, too. (In­deed, the idea that we elect pres­i­dents to “run” the econ­omy is a very re­cent no­tion.)

Still, there’s rea­son to be­lieve that ide­o­log­i­cal re­align­ments in this coun­try are not nec­es­sar­ily the prod­uct of care­ful anal­y­sis and rig­or­ous rea­son­ing. Rather, they are the re­sult of peo­ple as­sign­ing blame to the guy who just hap­pens to be in charge when the data hit the fan.

It’s not ex­actly a St. Crispin’s Day speech for par­ti­sans on ei­ther side, but it is a rea­son to care who wins, at least a lit­tle.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH

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