One of my favorite columnists, Mark Shields, has a saying: When the economy is the issue, it is the only issue. The converse—that when the economy is not the only issue, it is no longer an issue—may also be true. Judging from the headlines, then, the economy may soon be displaced as the focal point of American politics, with unforeseen consequences for the upcoming election and beyond.
This should not come as a surprise. The future is never a straight-line projection of the present. Predictions based on current conditions almost always turn out to be false. The conventional wisdom in Washington four years ago held that the 2008 election would be decided on the basis of which candidate would best protect America’s national security. The overwhelming attention paid to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ongoing threat of global jihad, and the Russian invasion of Georgia helped John McCain land the Republican nomination, gave Hillary Clinton a fighting chance in the Democratic primary, and saddled the country with our running joke of a vice president.
Then the floor fell out from under the already-unbalanced economy. Suddenly the issues of joblessness, financial security, global banking, deficits, and debt came to the fore. During the election, these issues played to Barack Obama’s strengths. As his time in office progressed and recovery failed to quickly materialize, however, they became a burden.
Polling shows that the economy remains voters’ top priority. But there are signs that the business situation is improving. The dropping unemployment rate is just one example of good economic news. U.S. growth may be subpar, but it is growth nonetheless. Conservatives would be foolish to think that the media will dwell on the economy’s weak spots when the president is a Democrat and his party controls the Senate.
Running bulls will bring in additional revenue to the U.S. Treasury, which will temporarily mask the country’s dire long-term fiscal predicament. The dollar’s status as the global reserve currency will stave off inflation and high interest rates for a while longer. The administration will claim credit despite doing everything in its power to reward friends and punish enemies, delay the recovery, and increase the cost and intrusiveness of government. But even that may not be enough to secure the president’s reelection.
Why? Because culture trumps economics. The tenor of news coverage might lead one to believe that the assault on the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation for ending donations to Planned Parenthood, and the debate over the administration ruling that universities and hospitals with religious affiliations must provide contraception to their employees, are winning issues for the Democrats. But any Democratic strategist planning a campaign around these issues might want to think twice.
Such controversies tend to mobilize conservatives more than liberals. As longtime consultant and analyst Jeffrey Bell observes in his excellent book, The Case for Polarized Politics, social issues tend to separate the populist, socially conservative mass from the progressive elite. That is why Republican social policy has been an electoral winner, whether the topic is crime or patriotism or affirmative action or abortion or religious liberty. If a Republican candidate does not behave like a kook or like he’s obviously out of step with his constituency, he will win on culture. If the debate is over income tax reductions or entitlement modifications, he may not be as lucky, no matter how necessary such reforms are to sustainable prosperity.
The debates over Komen and contraception are not solely about abortion and health care. They are both instances of a liberal minority attempting to coerce an organization to perform acts against its will. Patty Murray’s ridiculous suggestion that Komen’s "dangerous" decision to eliminate the grant to Planned Parenthood was the result of a "partisan witch hunt" is beside the point: Civil associations in a free society have every right to give money to whichever organizations they choose. Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer, M.D., can tell MSNBC that the Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive regulation is "a medical issue" all she wants; it does not change the fact that, if the regulation goes into effect, institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church will be forced to do something that violates fundamental tenets of their religion.
Both stories fit the classic pattern of post-cultural-revolution politics: The left demands that society "progress" beyond the point at which the majority is comfortable, a backlash occurs, and social conservatives win victories at the polls. No surprise that the Obama administration is reportedly trying to seek a compromise on contraceptives and the Church. What first seemed like a clever way to corral feminists, single women, and pro-choice suburban women under the Obama banner now seems like a mistake.
Obama always has been vulnerable to attacks on cultural grounds. Even the president’s admirers have said that he can be cold, aloof, and detached from American realities. His 2008 comment about Americans who "cling" to guns and religion illustrated the divide. His bailouts, stimuli, and budgets reward well-connected political allies at taxpayer expense. His egregious treatment of the state of Israel has served as a proxy for the culture war.
The Tea Party message contains two cultural arguments. The first is that institutions and individuals who made bad decisions should not be bailed out at the expense of individuals who made correct choices. The second argument is that elites in government and business are transforming America into a country unlike the one the Founders envisioned. Much of the opposition to the president’s signature domestic policy, Obamacare, was related to the legislation’s taxpayer funding of abortions. Back in 2010, one Republican candidate told me that he decided to run for Congress in a Midwest district explicitly because of Obamacare and abortion. Now he’s a House freshman.
The importance of the economy to politics, moreover, is routinely overstated. Certainly global meltdowns will affect electoral outcomes. Barring such a disaster, however, it is difficult if not impossible to make a direct connection between the unemployment rate or job creation and whether a president or Congress wins reelection. One can only rely on correlations and coincidences. FDR won reelection three times despite the Great Depression. The economy was improving when George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton. The economy was on the verge of a boom in 1994 when Republicans won Congress for the first time in 40 years. So, too, the economy was approaching the peak of a bubble in 2006 when the Democrats took back Congress because of the wars and GOP corruption.
Just because the economy was central to 2008 does not even mean that it was necessarily the most important factor in the GOP comeback of 2010. Jeffrey H. Anderson’s rigorous analysis of swing districts shows that House Democrats who voted against Obamacare were more likely to survive the "shellacking" than those who voted for it. Sean Trende points out in his must-read book, The Lost Majority, that Republican challengers emphasized Obamacare more than jobs in campaign communications. "The economy" is a large and undefined term and can be interpreted to mean many things.
The president is far more vulnerable to criticism on social and cultural grounds than he is to criticism of the "economy." To paraphrase Reagan, the economy is big enough to take care of itself. The markets wax and wane and are so powerful that not even years of bad policy have been able to keep them down. To put the economy at the vanguard may backfire if conditions continue to improve. Tying the president’s fiscal policies to broader questions of society, culture, life, and freedom is the more effective route, because on these questions Obama has nowhere to go. He is a prisoner of his ideological biases. His elitist defense of social progressivism likely will lead him to commit a gaffe similar to when he said that the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" in arresting Professor Gates of Harvard.
What makes the 2012 campaign so unsettled is that Republicans seem to be noticing, for the first time, the refurbished political landscape. Was it really a coincidence that Mitt Romney suffered a three-state loss to Rick Santorum just days after the unemployment rate drops to 8.3 percent and abortion resurfaces as the central question in American politics? Might not Republicans begin to wonder whether Romney would be the best or most electable nominee in a situation where social questions are once again dominant? I do not doubt Romney’s adoption of the pro-life cause. But I wonder whether his case for the nomination is not critically undermined by the fact that he had to renounce his previous stand on abortion in the first place and that he always will have to explain why his biggest accomplishment as governor was not the model for Obamacare.
The beauty of the cultural critique of this presidency and this left is that anyone can make it. Romney has shown yogi-like dexterity in message and tactics in the past. He can be flexible once more. His embrace of a culturally populist message may turn off some voters. The media may squeal that he is "abandoning the center." But, if past is prologue, emphasizing the issues that expose the cultural gulf between mainstream America and the die-hards in Washington in a serious and non-flaky way will rally millions of people to his side. When that happens, Romney will have to worry about only one thing: If the terms of the 2012 debate can change so suddenly from economics to culture, there is no reason why they can’t change again from culture back to economics—or from culture to war.