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How jobs are driving politics

James Carville was not the first person to discern a link between politics and the economy. Though no one had phrased it quite so artfully before (“It’s the economy, stupid”), the connection was already explicit in 1814 when Lord Brougham, future British chancellor of the Exchequer, complained that the government of William Pitt derived its support less from “constant, uniform, quiet prosperity” than from “those damned spurts which Pitt used to have just in the nick of time.”

Note Brougham’s familiarity with both sides of the equation — politicians are helped by economic growth and politicians in turn seek to manipulate the economy to create growth spurts at just the right time. 

The idea is hardly foreign to American politicians. Richard Nixon recalls in his autobiography, “I knew from bitter experience how, in both 1954 and 1958, slumps which hit bottom early in October contributed to substantial Republican losses in the House and Senate.” Nixon also attributed his 1960 defeat by John F. Kennedy to the economy: “In October … the jobless rolls increased by 452,000. All the speeches, television broadcasts, and precinct work in the world could not counteract that one hard fact.”

Republicans were not alone in articulating the connection. Nearly 20 years before Carville’s sign appeared over the doorway of the Clinton war room, Nobel Laureate James Tobin, earlier a member of Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers, wrote, “Recessions are of course politically dangerous, as Republican defeats in 1932, 1954, 1958, 1960 — and we might add 1970 — indicate. But a first derivative mentality is strong in American politics. Provided economic indicators are moving up, their level is secondary.”

Politicians of the past conspired to grow the economy to coincide with elections while lamenting recessions at inopportune moments. No patriot would scheme to keep his country mired in recession to reap political benefits — until now.

Monday’s Wall Street Journal reported on a group of Republican politicos, members of Congress and economists plotting a political assault aimed at preventing the Federal Reserve from implementing its job-creation plan. One participant told the Journal, “We talked about the importance of the right being outspoken and unified on this.”

I am no economist; I have no idea whether the Fed’s plan will work or not. But I do know the Fed is supposed to be independent of politics. Its chairmen pledge fealty to that principle, its rules are designed to ensure independence and Congress has repeatedly rebuffed legislation that threatens it. And I know Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is no Democratic stalking horse. He is a Republican whom George Bush appointed to his Council of Economic Advisers and whom Bush appointed Fed chairman. 

Indeed, Democratic economists like Alan Blinder have differed with Bernanke’s plan but, as he concluded, “I don’t run the Fed. Maybe Chairman Bernanke’s ideas are better than mine … and in any case the plan … is far better than doing nothing. It is … not a radical departure from conventional monetary policy and certainly not … currency manipulation.”

So why are Republicans threatening cherished principles, like the independence of the Fed, to prevent a Republican chairman, appointed by a Republican president, from taking action to reduce unemployment? Why must the right be “outspoken and unified on this”?

The answer, I fear, is as simple as it is disappointing. They know the Fed’s plan could create jobs. They also know what Brougham, Nixon, Kennedy, Tobin and Carville knew — that an improving economy helps the party in the White House, a repercussion Republicans desperately want to avoid. Creating jobs is not the GOP’s prime goal; rather, as Mitch McConnell plainly said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” In attempting a coup against the Fed, Republicans have turned McCain’s slogan inside out — for them, it’s now party over country.


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.