Charlie Cook, the author of the “indispensible” weekly political analysis column in the National Journal, had some bad news for Democrats this week.
As we enter the heart of the summer, it should become obvious which narrative will be the dominant one in this election. At this point, Democrats had hoped that voters would have warmed up to their health care reform package, that employment would be clearly bouncing back, and that they could have made significant inroads in calming the political waters that have been so turbulent over the last year.
At this point, there is very little evidence that time has made the electorate’s heart grow fonder on the health care bill. If there is a revisionist history, it looks more likely to be written after this election rather than before it. It would be charitable to say that health care reform was a wash for Democrats; more likely it was a net negative, although there are other issues and developments that have clearly matched its importance.
The Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has measured the monthly unemployment rate for a total of 734 months going back to January 1948. To put our current situation in historical context, only 22 of those 734 months have seen the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent or worse. Further, only once, in 1982, has the unemployment rate risen above 8 percent in an election year.
The new Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of 52 top economists released Monday shows a consensus forecast of a 9.6 percent unemployment rate for this calendar year, one-tenth of a point better than the current rate, with the rate predicted to be 9.6 percent and 9.5 percent for the third and fourth quarters, respectively; 9 percent for 2011; and 8.7 percent for the fourth quarter of 2011, the final quarter before the 2012 presidential election year begins.
So, the things that Democrats were worried about in September and at the beginning of this year are still big problems. But they have also now been exacerbated by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which has invited competence comparisons, whether accurate or not, to former President George W. Bush‘s handling of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
On the party identification front, Democrats are losing ground but Republicans are not directly picking it up. While Gallup figures show voters dropping their Democratic allegiances, they are not moving to the GOP.
Rather, they are identifying as independents or when pushed, concede that they are leaning Republican. Finally, among generic ballot tests which ask who the person being interviewed would vote for between a generic Democrat and generic Republican, Republicans are firmly ahead. Indeed, they are increasingly ahead even among registered voters, numbers that would likely understate Republican percentages this fall.
In short, what Democrats needed to happen hasn’t, and while Republicans have done little to help their own case, it doesn’t matter because it’s not about them. As in every other midterm election, it’s never a referendum on the minority party; it’s a referendum on the party in power. And as of now, that’s not a good place for Democrats to be.