Washington Matters


Both Sides Misread Election Message

Mark Willen

Voters aren’t about to get what they really want from policymakers -- a cooperative effort to help the economy grow.



It’s hardly surprising (but no less disappointing) that Democrats and Republicans are missing the message that voters sent on Tuesday. Unless that changes quickly, we’re in for two years of deadlock the country can ill afford.

There were, of course, several messages in the results, a fact that allows everyone to do a fair amount of cherry picking. The clearest message is that voters are deeply disappointed in the results produced by President Obama and the Democrats in Congress over the past two years. Specifically, they want action to improve the economy. The 42% of the potential voters who turned out on Nov. 2 -- especially Republicans and unhappy independents -- think Obama has been too active in the wrong areas. They want jobs, not big government and big deficits. The 58% who didn’t vote include many who don’t think it matters who runs Washington, but there were also a sizable number of Democrats who stayed home because they don’t think Obama fought hard enough for a more liberal agenda.

But there were a lot of other, more nuanced messages sent by voters, messages that neither side seems to understand. Obama’s news conference and subsequent interviews included the obligatory acceptance of responsibility and a promise to listen more to voters. But there’s no real contrition or sign of change. The president still thinks the problem was mostly in his failure to explain policies. That was part of it, to be sure, but a whole lot of voters thought by trying to do so much, he ended up doing too little for the economy and job growth. The problem for him is that he has few arrows left in his quiver on that score. The stimulus worked, but not well enough, and there’s little else the federal government can do because of both economic and political restraints.

Republicans, in turn, are overstating the mandate they got from the less than 25% of potential voters who actually went to the polls and cast ballots for them. They’re focused on repeal of the health care, though exit polls show voters were evenly split on that. It would be far better to focus on improving the law, but that would require cooperation with Obama and giving up a political high card (at least with the GOP and Tea Party base) so they’re not about to go in that direction. Americans will be the losers for that, because the health law needs improving.

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The GOP is also going to fight to the finish to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, insisting that’s the best way to create jobs. Hogwash. How can a tax cut that’s already been in existence for 10 years create jobs when it has failed to do that so far? Raising taxes may mean job losses (it’s debatable) but extending existing tax rates won’t create any. And as for a mandate, only 37% of those who voted on Tuesday favor an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy, according to exit polls.

A better method for creating jobs might be targeted spending to improve the nation’s infrastructure. That comes with all sorts of benefits, short term and long term, which is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups support Obama’s proposal to do that. But Republicans won’t give the president a victory, even if the evidence overwhelmingly points to the wisdom of it. They’ll argue that it would add to the deficit, and they’re only willing to do that for tax cuts.

In his news conference, Obama promised to reach out to Republicans, something he didn’t try hard enough in his first two years (it might not have worked anyway). His olive branch was a willingness to accept a temporary extension of all the Bush tax cuts.

Republicans say they’re also willing to talk, but only if Obama does what they want him to do. The House Speaker-to-be, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, told Fox News that “now is not the time to compromise.” And Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP Senate leader who won’t dare forget the comeuppance he suffered from the Tea Party in this election, says compromise isn’t realistic. He insists that the only way to achieve GOP goals is to defeat Obama in 2012 and that’s where all his efforts will be. That may be honest, but it doesn’t bode well for making progress on the economy or anything else over the next two years.



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