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Gans: Voter Disillusionment Has Only Just Begun

If there is any really good news for the politics and governance of the nation emerging from this year’s dismal campaign cycle, it is the almost certain defeat of Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon and Meg Whitman.

They join a long line of candidates — John Connally, Clayton Williams, Steve Forbes, Ronald Lauder and Michael Huffington, to name a few — who learned the hard way that money, absent relevance, articulation, competence and political sensitivity, can’t buy high office.

But it is hard to see any other long-term good coming out of this election.

This is not a partisan comment. There has never been an election during a recession or depression — in which the perception is that the economic situation is not moving in the right direction — that the party in the White House does not suffer substantial electoral losses.

The only question at this juncture is the height of the tsunami.

Will it be a 1934 landslide or a 1982 correction? Will it be the occasion of a groundswell of higher turnout as in most previous recession elections or will disaffection, disillusionment and lack of hope among substantial portions of the electorate reduce the impulse to vote? The betting here is for a Republican tsunami propelled by a turnout lower than that of 2006.

The more important question is whether the results of this election will make possible a remedy for the underlying issues that brought about those results. Those issues start with unemployment and underemployment.

There are 15 million Americans on the unemployment rolls. There are an additional 15 million who are out of the labor force or working at inadequately paying part-time jobs. There are an indeterminate number of others who fear they will be added to that 30 million. Those Americans are hunkering down, saving rather than buying. If citizens won’t consume, business will neither hire nor expand production. And neither will provide the tax revenue to reverse major budgetary shortfalls in both state and federal governments.

The economy will not improve until at least 9 million (adjusted for additions to the population, as well as the 8 million who have lost jobs) of the 30 million are working and spending. No tax relief is going to get the frightened unemployed and underemployed to spend; no tax incentives will get businesses who don’t see customers to hire. Nothing short of a major federally funded jobs program aimed both at aid to the states and direct and imaginative federal hiring will restore vitality to the economy and a sense of security to the citizenry.

President Barack Obama failed to envision the need. His opponents don’t have such a program as part of their agenda.

The president can claim a number of accomplishments. Along with President George W. Bush’s TARP program, the economy was rescued from freefall and a major industry was salvaged. A health care reform that will provide insurance for 31 million uninsured citizens and prohibit denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions is an important contribution, as is the initial step toward regulation of the financial industry.

But on two major issues, Obama left himself and his party vulnerable. He was faced with the choice to put forward a stimulus program of sufficient size to reverse the employment plunge advocated by economic advisers Christina Romer and Lawrence Summers, among others, or accede to the political readings of Rahm Emanuel and others who counseled that only a more limited measure could pass Congress. He chose the easier perceived path of the possible over a major battle for the necessary. When that decision clearly failed to ameliorate the employment situation, he chose to neither propose nor fight for something that might.

In a larger sense, Obama chose to build his record on individual policy achievements rather than the assertion and defense of an engaged government as the only entity with sufficient resources and ability to attack the magnitude of the nation’s economic crisis.

The result has been that the Republicans have had a very large and stationary clay pigeon to shoot at: Massive government spending has failed to revive the economy. Massive government spending has produced a huge debt burden that is unsustainable in the present and will be an oppressive burden in the future. Any rollback of the Bush tax cuts will reduce what little consumption exists.

Given the state of the economy after two years of the Obama administration, it’s a winning strategy, and the Republicans will record major gains on all levels — both chambers of Congress, governorships and state legislatures.

The issue of whether the GOP gains enough seats to control one or both chambers of Congress is, basically, irrelevant. The GOP priorities of rapid deficit reduction, less business regulation and smaller government are likely to hurt the economy in the same manner that FDR’s austerity policies in 1937 renewed the Depression. Any major stimulative policies by the Obama administration are dead on arrival in a Congress in which the Republicans can block whatever they wish.

Minor agreements are possible on issues such as free trade with Korea and Latin America, modest tort reform and some stimulative policies on energy, particularly nuclear power. But the basic condition of Congress will be one of major gridlock and political posturing for the 2012 elections in an economy not noticeably healed. And we’ll probably see a progressively heightened amount of incivility on Capitol Hill.

All of which points to a polarized 2012 election — and the more tea party candidates that win this year, the more polarized 2012 will be. The GOP will put forward, at a high decibel level, policies that cannot possibly reverse the economic drift, while the president will face the perception of having singularly failed to meet the most important challenge of his time.

If anyone thought that disillusionment reigned this year, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

Curtis Gans is the director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

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