No summer of love for Democrats

It hasn’t exactly been the summer of love — at least not for Democrats.

After enjoying a welcome break, I’ve been struggling to find a way of summarizing what’s happened. Writing anew seems depressing enough that I’ve decided to take a brief tour though my earlier thoughts, adding a bit of contemporary commentary along the way. (Personally, I hate people quoting themselves, and no doubt you do too — so I beg your indulgence.)

Shortly after election 2008 I warned against “a creeping triumphalism in some party circles,” which had devolved “into tentative talk of realignment and permanent Democratic majorities.” Though it seems laughable today, two years ago, too many Democrats celebrated what they expected were enduring gains.

However, as I contended in January, “voters have given Democrats less a triumph and more an opportunity to perform.” “Citizens,” I wrote, projecting forward to 2010, “focus more on results … If our economy is humming and our position in the world secure, voters happily reward those who appear responsible for our good fortune. If not, we punish the incumbent party.” 

Of course, the economy is hardly humming — George Bush saw to that. No rational observer could blame our economic misfortune on President Obama. Yet, as I noted in February, “While this is clearly Bush’s recession, within a year or so President Obama may nonetheless feel its political weight” and by the end of the year his approval rating could be 50 percent (for the record, the average was 50.6 percent). 

The reason was simple. I explained later, “While Americans still blame Bush for the recession, after nine months, voters cannot help but act as if the current chief executive bears at least some responsibility.” All the more so after two years. 

The same economy that drove down the president’s ratings is also the primary cause of Democrats’ sour electoral prospects this November. 

Months ago, it became apparent that the economy would not actually improve by Election Day. But hope was not completely lost. In April I argued, “The critical issue here is not whether voters are experiencing a significantly improved economy — alas, that remains rather unlikely — but whether they believe improvement will be forthcoming in the clearly foreseeable future. On the other hand, if we do not reach that point of inflection, if sufficient numbers do not expect near-term improvement, November could prove much worse for Democrats.”

It is now apparent that voters will not see that point of economic inflection. When I was typing the sentence above, in April, over 40 percent were telling Gallup the economy was getting better. Today, even fewer — just 30 percent — hold that view. Economic expectations not only failed to improve, they actually deteriorated. 

Lest you think I adopted this mode of presentation as a subliminal effort to say, “Hey, I’ve been right,” allow me to note one area where I could not have been more wrong. Back in the first half of the year I actually believed that if the stimulus passed, the economy would be getting better about now — that voters would actually be seeing that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

They aren’t. Indeed, we have gotten to the point where as many people think the Democrats’ policies have hurt the economy as believe they have helped.

The stimulus did pass, and we can rightly say things would have been at lot worse without it. But voters are asking, “Where are the jobs? Why don’t I see more of them?”

So we are left with the nearly impossible task of proving the counterfactual — demonstrating how much worse it would have all been had the GOP gotten its way.

And that’s why Democrats have felt so little love this summer.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.