Russ Roberts, of Cafe Hayek and George Mason U., is one of my favorite economists. He has a solid analytical approach and a knack for making economic arguments understandable to the layperson. But I have to conclude that, like most economists, he doesn’t understand politics.
In his recent post on Obama’s Future, he manages to get several errors into a single half-sentence.
if [Obama] persists in staying as far to the left as he has so far, not only will he not win re-election, I think he’ll have trouble getting the Democratic nomination.
First, it’s a mystery to me how any non-knee jerk conservative (and Roberts is definitely not one of those) could still believe Obama is governing far to the left. His civil liberties record is as right-wing as Bush’s, and his health-care plan is the most conservative of all conceivable government health-care plans. He never appeared to even give serious consideration to a national health care plan, ala Truman and Clinton. Obama is governing from the center, if in fact he’s not actually governing from the right-of-center.
Second, I’ll stake my claim right now that Obama has no trouble getting the Democratic nomination. Who’s going to run against him? Clinton? He’s neutralized her by beating her once and then making her Secretary of State. If she runs against him now it appears as a great betrayal, the (if I may be forgiven the analogy) dog turning on its master. And who else is there in the Democratic Party that has the standing to challenge him? One of those many bland white guys whom he soundly trounced in gaining the ’08 nomination? And damaging primary challenges generally come from the wing, not from the center. Think Reagan challenging Ford, or Ted Kennedy challenging Carter. The idea of a Democrat who is both more centrist than Obama and capable of rousing the party faithful in the primaries defies all logic. There is no devout centrist party faithful that will turn out in the primaries–primaries draw more heavily from the wings of the parties, hence the famous problem of running to the wings for the nomination, then running to the middle for the election. Roberts has apparently reversed this structure in his conception of the American, or at least the Democratic, electorate.
Third, he assumes Obama will be beaten because the economy will be weak and he won’t have much to show. Well, if he actually has the troops out of Iraq, he’ll have a significant campaign issue right there. But more importantly, any effective campaign manager will tell you that you can’t beat something with nothing–you can’t just be against the current guy, but have to actually offer something of your own. So Obama’s accomplished little, especially on the economy. What exactly do the Republicans have to offer? More of the policies that got us into the mess? Further division on same-sex marriage? These are not winning issues.
You also need a good candidate. To be sure, good candidates are sometimes dark horses, but that happens less often than not. Look around the Republican Party and point out the person who can carry more than half the public? Romney? Maybe, but he probably has too much political baggage by now. Palin? She’d crack and self-destruct on the campaign trail in spectacular fashion. An unknown with mediocre campaign skills like Carter could win because the public had turned on both the Republicans and the establishment with a vengeance after Watergate. The Tea Party folks might have you think there’s a comparison to today, but the other 75% of the public won’t agree.
Following up a few days later, with a post titled “Failure,” Roberts predicts the Republicans taking the House, and maybe the Senate. Maybe. But he predicts them taking those chambers on a message of repealing Obamacare (a phrase I hate–it’s so purposely designed to shut down intelligent debate)–and I don’t think that plays that well. It rallies the Republican faithful, to be sure. But the key is the middle of the road people, and I haven’t seen the evidence that they hate the Obama health care plan, and if they’re out of jobs and trying to figure out how to take their kids to the doctor, it probably begins to look good to them. I keep imagining this debate:
Republican challenger: “My opponent voted for a socialist un-American health care plan.”
Democratic incumbent: “You’ve been out of work for two years because of the policies of George W. Bush, and my opponent doesn’t care that you can’t take your child to the doctor.”
Played right, I think that’s a big winner in many swing districts.
And Roberts seems to forget the primary rule of congressional elections: All politics is local. Peddling hatred of Obama and Obamacare won’t win the day; focusing on the issues that matter to the voters of that particular district will.
I live in the Michigan 7th, a major battleground district. Traditionally Republican, one of the most conservative districts in Michigan, but currently represented by a first-time Democrat. The Dems are pouring money in to try to hang onto it, while the Republicans have legitimate hopes of keeping it. The big question is who wins the Republican primary. The former incumbent, Tim Walberg, who lost to the Democrat, is battling to win it back. He’s a religious right candidate who’s just not real popular. If he wins the primary, I think the Democrats eke out a win to retain the district. One of his challengers is a new face on the scene, Brian Rooney: A Marine combat veteran, young and good-looking, with three children, and the grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney. If he gets the nomination, it all comes down to how well he campaigns.*
That’s what control of Congress comes down to: money, candidates, and local concerns. Not Obama.
As for the 2012 presidential election, Obama is vulnerable, to be sure. Presidents don’t do well seeking re-election when the economy is down. But the key time period for that is the late spring and summer before the election. If the unemployment rate declines through 2011, even if it begins in later 2011 and continues through summer 2012, Obama won’t have an economic problem, and Republicans won’t have a campaign issue. If the economy remains weak, the Republicans still need a good candidate–and don’t underestimate Obama as a campaigner–and a message that isn’t just “put us back in, we’ll do the same thing but this time it will work, really.”
* His website is noticeably devoid of discussion of issues, unfortunately. But he worked with the Thomas More Law Center for a while, so he may be a religious right candidate as well.