I have argued that rising unemployment inevitably imperils the political prospects of a president and his party. So I’m not surprised that President Barack Obama’s approval ratings have steadily fallen over the last year, or that Democrats have fared poorly in recent elections. And it’s fair to say that if unemployment continues to rise, or stays at the same elevated level, the Democrats will have trouble in the midterm elections this November.
Still, this is not an iron law. Sometimes other factors have overshadowed rising unemployment or falling wages. In 2002, Republicans were able to parlay the public’s trust in George W. Bush’s war on terror into election victories. And a president’s political acumen--his ability to put the best light on his and his party’s accomplishments--can mitigate the effects of rising unemployment. That’s what Ronald Reagan and the Republicans achieved in the 1982 midterm elections.
From January 1982 to November 1982, the unemployment rate rose from 8.6 to 10.4 percent. On election eve, unemployment was higher than it had been since the Great Depression, and many voters expected the economy to continue to decline. No party had faced a similar kind of economic downfall since Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, and in that midterm election, the Democrats had lost 72 House seats and seven Senate seats.
Using economic models, some political scientists predicted that Democrats would pick up as many as 50 House seats. The Democrats also hoped to win back the Senate, which they had lost in 1980. But when the votes were tallied, the Republicans lost 26 House seats and kept their 54 seats in the Senate. How did Reagan and the Republicans manage to contain their losses in this midterm election? That’s a question not simply of historical interest, but of direct relevance to Obama and the Democrats who are likely to face a similar, although perhaps not as severe, economic situation in November 2010.
Unlike George W. Bush and the Republicans in 2002, Reagan did not try to divert the electorate’s attention away from the economy. Foreign policy and national security played almost no role in the election. Nor did abortion or school prayer. The election was very much a referendum on Reagan and his economic policies. Many Republican candidates wanted to run on local issues, but Reagan knew that he and his economic policies were going to be more important--in the final tally 70 percent of the voters told pollsters that they were voting “for or against Ronald Reagan”--and he wanted to confront his critics.
Early in the year, Reagan’s chief of staff James Baker assembled a strategy group that included Lee Atwater and Ed Rollins. Baker and Atwater were the premier campaign strategists of their time, as they would demonstrate again in the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections. They devised a strategy for Reagan around the theme of “staying the course.” Reagan would urge voters to have patience with his economic policies and to “vote your hopes, not your fears.”
Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with “the worst economic mess in half a century.” ''Slowly, but surely, we are lifting the economy out of the mess created over the past several decades,'' he said. ''We are on the road back.'' The Democrats, he charged, had caused the recession through profligate spending, which had caused inflation, which had caused unemployment. By cutting spending and taxes, Reagan claimed that he was showing the way toward a recovery. “If we stick to our plan, if we keep the Congress from going back to its runaway spending, the recovery will take hold, strengthen and endure," he said.
Reagan stated this theme not once, but hundreds of times and in virtually the same words, and it was featured in national Republican ads. When the Democrats charged that his policies had created the recession, he accused them of playing “the blame game,” all the while blaming them for the recession. Wrote New York Times columnist James Reston, “He deplores ‘The Blame Game' but he plays it more convincingly and effectively than anybody else in Washington.”
Of course, much of what Reagan claimed during the campaign was nonsense. He said he was for cutting taxes, but in August he had agreed to tax increases needed to reduce the deficit. While he said he was against spending and deficits, the deficit had ballooned under him. While there had been a downturn from 1979 to 1980, unemployment had started to fall. It began rising again in April 1981, three months after Reagan had been sworn in. Many voters did see through Reagan’s claims, but enough did not to minimize the losses that the Republicans suffered in November.
According to the NBC/Associated Press exit polls, when voters were asked whether Reagan’s economic program would eventually help or hurt the economy, 46 percent said it would help and 45 percent said it would hurt. Forty-four percent of voters blamed the Democrats for the country’s economic ills and only 41 percent blamed Reagan. A mere six percent of voters saw Reagan’s program as a “success,” while 36 percent thought it was a failure. But 49 percent thought that “Reagan needs time for his economic program to succeed.” That was, public opinion analyst William Schneider concluded, “precisely the president’s argument in his ‘stay the course’ campaign.”
So, first, the good news for Obama and the Democrats: They enjoy a more favorable economic situation than Reagan did. The unemployment rate shot up during 1982, but it may actually decline this year. And Obama and the Democrats may not need to exaggerate or distort past history to the extent that Reagan did in order to make a case for themselves. But they have to make some kind of political case and, so far, they’ve been hopelessly inept at it.
Reagan and his advisors understood that politics is above all thematic. Voters don’t pay much attention to the details of programs except in so far as they suggest certain overarching conclusions about the candidate and party. The themes illuminate the specifics rather than vice versa. Reagan spoke directly to voters’ concerns about the economy with three little words, “stay the course.”
Reagan, of course, was a brilliant thematic politician. And if you look at the successful presidential campaigns of the last two decades, they have invariably been based on themes rather than lists of programs or promises: Reagan’s “Morning in America” in 1984; Bill Clinton’s “people before profits” in 1992; George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism” in 2000; and of course Barack Obama’s “change we can believe” in 2008.
Midterm elections are often fought on local turf and the power of incumbency. Most often, the party in power is too preoccupied with its legislative battles or too complacent about the results. But to overcome a party in power or to defend successfully a party’s accomplishments in the face of a declining economy, parties have to resort to thematic politics. In 1994, Republicans successfully nationalized the elections around the “Contract With America” and in 2002, Bush advisor Karl Rove artfully used the “war on terror” to divert voters’ attentions from business scandals and rising unemployment.
Obama understood the importance of thematic politics in his presidential campaign, but he and his political advisors have yet to find a way to characterize what he has tried to do as president. They fall back on the president’s biography. And in the by-elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, they have sat back, hoped for the best, and saw the worst come to pass. They have ceded the definition of the administration’s aims and accomplishments to talk radio demagogues like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and to Tea Party activists. Amazingly, they have tried only fitfully and have not succeeded in playing the “blame game.”
Reagan and the Republicans ran against Carter and the Democrats in the same way as Roosevelt ran against Hoover. Baker and Atwater had studied Roosevelt’s and the Democrats’ 1934 campaign. (They even swiped “stay the course” from FDR.) But Obama and his advisors have been reluctant to stigmatize George W. Bush and the Republicans--perhaps out of a spirit of bipartisanship. That’s a mistake, as Obama seems finally to have realized.
If the Democrats want to make a case this year for their economic policies, they have to make a strong and convincing case that they are trying to lift the country out of the abyss into which Bush and the Republicans plunged it, and that if the Republicans win the Congress in November, the country could slip back into the same abyss. Yes, the voters seem to have forgotten George W. Bush, but that’s because Obama and the Democrats have allowed them to do so.
Finally, it would be nice if Obama and the Democrats could pass national health insurance and put before Congress jobs programs that dramatize the Republican indifference to the suffering of all but the wealthiest Americans. But what will matter in November is not what the Democrats have done, but how the voters understand what they have done. It’s all about politics. That’s the lesson of the 1982 election.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.