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Where David Brooks Goes Wrong

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

David Brooks thinks voters are rejecting Obama because he’s too liberal. I think voters are mainly (if not entirely) pissed off because unemployment is really high, and that Brooks’s argument, which he’s been making for a while now, leans on some pretty implausible assumptions. I don’t think either side of this debate is going to convince the other any time soon. But maybe it’s at least worth pointing out two places where today's Brooks column comes up a bit short.

1.) Brooks writes:

Some Democrats believe their policies have nothing to do with the debacle. It was the unemployment rate, they say. But it was Democratic economic policies that first repelled these voters. ... Republicans didn’t score gains everywhere unemployment was high (see California, for example). But they did score gains nearly everywhere where disapproval of President Obama and his policies was high.

Let’s concede that voters in some states are more conservative than voters in others, and that Obama’s signature policy initiatives, like health care, are going to be less popular in the former than the latter. Even if true, this hardly negates the unemployment argument.

If you compare Obama’s job approval rating in, say, California and Ohio, you see that it’s declined by a roughly equal amount in both places—from about 70 to 48.9 in California versus 62 to 38.5 in Ohio. (See charts below.) The biggest reason Democrats did better in California seems to be that they started off more popular there, and Obama’s approval started off significantly higher, meaning it could end up in a not terrible place even after a steep decline ... owing to unemployment. 

2.) Brooks writes:

Democrats have, at least temporarily, blown the opportunity they were given to connect with the industrial Midwest. Voters in this region face structural problems, not cyclical ones. Intensely suspicious of government, they are nonetheless casting about for somebody, anybody, who can revive their towns and neighborhoods. Disillusioned with big spending and big debt, they at least want to see their government reflect their values of discipline, order and responsibility. Not only in America, but also in Germany, Sweden, France, Britain and across Europe, working-class voters these days are putting center-right governments in power.

But the comparison with Europe seems to prove the opposite of what Brooks suggests. Without getting too much into the weeds about specific elections in specific countries (for example, Angela Merkel’s center-right government famously lost a key election earlier this year), I guess it’s possible that working-class voters across Europe were registering a protest against overweening statism when they elected these center-right governments. But given that even center-right governments in Europe are pretty statist, and that working-class Europeans have been happily voting for liberal statist parties for decades, it seems much more likely that they’re reacting to a tough economic stretch than making an ideological point.

P.S. Here are those Obama approval ratings: