Why Some of Us Tune Out Democrats

Stanley Greenberg's essay ran in the New York Times yesterday, entitled "Why Voters Tune Out Democrats."  Greenberg's piece is less explaining than wondering why some people are cold to arguments put forward by Democrats. 

I am not clear why Greenberg thinks his party is being tuned out.  The latest Real Clear Politics report shows Obama with a 44.8% approval rating.  If I had my name tied to a risible stimulus, $4.9 trillion in new debt, 0.4% GDP growth, and 9.2% unemployment, I would thank Heaven for 45% approval.

Democrats still have more friends than enemies.  While Michael Barone's recent article in the Boston Herald states that trends are "not good news for Barack Obama and the Democrats," the Pew study to which he reacts found Democrats leading Republicans by 47%-43%.  The three major networks are still proceeding as if their viewers want to hear the Democrats' point of view more than anything else, as evidenced by the Media Research Center's recent study of 202 stories broadcast in July.  While 66% of broadcasts blamed Republicans for the debt ceiling impasse, only 20% blamed Democrats.

Theory #1: Democrats are too insecure and overthink everything.

The Democrats' problem with disproportion may be one reason that Greenberg can't read trends proportionately.  At one point Greenberg says this:

[V]oters feel ever more estranged from government - and [...] they associate Democrats with government. If Democrats are going to be encumbered by that link, they need to change voters' feelings about government.

Like the perfectionist who fails a multiple-choice exam because he overanalyzes the choices, the Democrats set themselves up for failure by first expecting too much approval.  It isn't enough that 47% of the country agree with them.  No, no.  The Democrats writhe in search of corollaries and syllogisms.  Instead of embarking on a new quest to change how people feel about government, maybe they need to do a better job.  Is that too pedestrian to be a legitimate answer?

Theory #2: Many of us don't want what Democrats want us to want.

Consider what Greenberg says here:

[You] would think that voters of average means would flock to progressives, who are supposed to have their interests in mind - and who historically have delivered for them.

"Flock" is a strange word.  The Democrats expect "voters of average means" not only to agree with progressives, but also to coo with gratitude.

Like most on the left, he thinks we are all materialists in the eighteenth-century sense.  Despite socialist urges, progressives adhere to threads from Smith's Wealth of Nations, among them the notion that self-interest can be measured through empirical indices: income, life expectancy, an apex of Bentham's "utiles," or some sort of Ricardo optimality.

That some prefer the Smith of Theory of Moral Sentiments rarely occurs to Democrats.  Not all of us measure the happiness of our lives by statistics, whether a percentage increase in our disposable income or the percentage of wealth held by the uppermost 1% of society (a statistic that never ceases to obsess Democrats).

In Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith argues that a force within our hearts leads each of us to sympathize with others as fits our nature.  We can live for love, the freedom to do as we please, the honor of defeating abominations such as slavery, genocide overseas, or abortion at home.  This perplexes Democrats because they think all we want is more money.

Theory #3: Democrats get their history wrong...a lot.

Stanley Greenberg believes that Democrats have "historically delivered" for the average person.  But the Democrats' fingerprints are all over shameful crimes against American underdogs.

Maybe he glorifies the FDR who launched building projects rather than the FDR who interned Japanese Americans, kept the armed forces segregated, and couldn't get the country out of a depression until a global war intervened.  Perhaps he likes Andrew Jackson the populist, rather than Andrew Jackson whose legacy is tainted by the Trail of Tears, not to mention James K. Polk, who led the United States in the Mexican-American War, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who were clueless and even complicit about slavery, or Grover Cleveland, who is remembered as a "Bourbon Democrat" because he ignored the radicals who congealed around William Jennings Bryan.

To be fair, Greenberg is more focused on the last five decades:

During the last half-century or so, when a Democratic president has led the country, people have tended to experience lower unemployment, less inequality and rising income compared with periods of Republican governance.

Between 1961 and 2011, we had 28 years of Republican presidents and 22 years of Democrat presidents.  Does Stanley Greenberg think the president is powerful enough to affect all these variables?  Does it matter who controls Congress?  What's happening in other parts of the world?

Clinton's presidency saw a huge economic boom...after 1995, when there was a Republican-controlled Congress.

Otherwise, how do you gloss over the disastrous Carter presidency, the low unemployment rate when Bush was president, and the massive growth during the Reagan presidency?  Which brings me to my fourth and final theory to help Stanley Greenberg understand why some of us can't listen to Democrats anymore.

Theory #4: It's hard to figure out how Democrats think the government works.

Unlike many conservatives, I do not fetishize the Constitution.  It was a frail compromise and it cannot answer some of our dilemmas.  Take, for example, Rick Perry's desire to opine on gay marriage by citing the 10th amendment and referring the debate to "states' rights."  My response: "oh, come on."  Sometimes we must rise to the occasion and take a stand based on principles that come from other sources.

Having said that, the Constitution charts the government's system of "checks and balances."  The Congress has the power to collect taxes, pay debts, and allot money for national defense.  Therefore, the economy is usually going to be affected by the decisions of people in Congress, more than by the wishes of the president.  It is a basic, oversimplified point, but a point that Democrats seem not to understand sometimes.

In Greenberg's piece, he repeatedly draws the focus toward the public's views about government and what the government ought to do about economic problems.  He gives this overview:

Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics. Lost jobs, soaring spending and crippling debt make America ever weaker, unable to meet its basic obligations to educate and protect its citizens.

Stanley Greenberg says Democrats need to be "as determined as the Tea Party" to change government and perceptions of government.

That sounds very good, except there is one problem: Democrats jump willy-nilly between thinking the president calls the shots on the economy and then thinking the Congress does.  Here is where their partisan rhetoric becomes intolerable.

Case in point: On July 29, Eliot Spitzer screams at Margaret Hoover on Bill Maher's Real Time that Clinton had a surplus.

Clinton had a surplus!  Clinton had a surplus!  Clinton had a surplus!  Democrats cling to this statement as if for dear life.  Joy Behar touts the same claim to Ann Coulter on her show.

But Clinton had a surplus because House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a gung-ho crop of Republicans forced him to balance the budget.  The Republicans controlled both houses of Congress from 1995-2000, the brief period that there were annual budget surpluses.  So wouldn't it behoove us to give credence to what the Republican-controlled House is trying to do in the current debt ceiling debate, rather than demonize them as Tea Party extremists, terrorists, and heartless extortionists?

The amount of liberal vitriol directed against the House reveals that Democrats do understand that Congress controls economic policy rather than simply the president.  That's good to know.

But why do Democrats ignore that they controlled both houses of Congress for four years from January 2007 to January 2011?  It was during this period that the budget deficits mushroomed, the housing bubble popped, and the recession started.

If Bush is still to be blamed for the economic woes of those years, then isn't Obama to blame for the economic woes on his watch, regardless of what he "inherited" and regardless of who controls the House of Representatives?

I cannot follow what Democrats think presidents are supposed to do about economics.  President Obama says he inherited a mess, but President Bush had to contend with 9/11, not only an emotional tragedy but also a financial disaster.  See this piece by Leslie Eaton from 2002; there was hemorrhaging in the Dow Jones, the prospect of massive unemployment, and possible collapse of the insurance industry.  Bush stabilized things with massive government spending and tax cuts, which kept the economy from foundering but led to a large debt.  Isn't that where we are now?  And didn't Obama react to crises with similar instincts -- keep down unemployment and worry about the debt later?  (And wait -- wasn't Obama in the Democrat-controlled Senate for two years before he became president?)

So after a while, what do I conclude?  The Democrats don't know what they want, don't know what I want, and aren't clear on how the government has worked, works now, or ought to work.  I tune them out.

Robert Oscar Lopez is the author of The Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman (Rowman & Littlefield's University Press of America, 2011).  He can be found at www.colorfulconservative.com