The Outlook and the Economy

Chris Bowers notes that not only does the current Senate outlook look bad for Democrats, but there’s a fair chance that it could get worse if Barbara Mikulski retires or Dino Rossi, George Pataki, or Tommy Thompson jump into gubernatorial races.

I think the breadth and depth of the political problems facing incumbent Democratic legislators underscores the fact that the political situation is being driven by the bleak economic outlook. Given the fact that the filibuster makes it so difficult to pass legislation, it’s just not all that plausible that ideological overreach is imperiling Democratic candidates in states like Washington and New York that are solidly liberal. The issue is bad results in the real world. Of course if you think that progressive ideology is causing the bad results, then it’s a distinction without a difference. But I would say that the issue has been an unwillingness on the part of legislators to take the short-term hit that would be associated with recovery policies equal to the scale of the task.

Yesterday, Kevin Drum said he doesn’t like to emphasize this stuff:

But I have to confess that this one of those results I prefer not to focus on too much. It’s sort of like talking about how important luck is in life results. It might be true, but it also induces a sort of fatalism that can be damaging in the long run. It’s good for society if people think they have more control over their destiny than they do, and it’s good for politicians to think there are things they can do to make people better off and increase their own chances of reelection. If incumbency and the economy are pretty much all there is to it, why bother spending time on actual legislation? It’s just a bunch of hard work that probably won’t pay off anyway.

And it probably won’t. But let’s keep quiet about that.

I see where he’s coming from, but I think this is backwards. In my view, one of the big problems we have in American government is that politicians vastly overrate the importance of “positioning” and basically meaningless gambits. What the truth about the close linkages between economic performance and political outcomes reveal is that smart politicians should try harder to govern effectively by enacting policies that lead to broadly shared prosperity. The belief that you can just kind of much around for years and then turn things around with a clever speech or single well-honed micro-initiative is what leads to a pernicious level of passivity.