Is the Economy Improving Enough to Take That Bullseye Off Democrats?

Whether you are a poli sci-influenced fundamentalist or a game-changey Politico-reading phenomenologist when it comes to what you think determines presidential elections, you’ll probably agree the direction of the economy matters an awful lot. To put it simply, brightening economic prospects (or more accurately, perceptions of economic prospects) lifts what might have been a millstone from the Democratic Party after eight years of controlling the White House. So what Paul Krugman noted from last Thursday’s debate could actually be the most important takeaway:

There was remarkably little economic discussion at the debate, although Jeb Bush is still boasting about his record in Florida — that is, his experience in presiding over a gigantic housing bubble, and providentially leaving office before the bubble burst. Why didn’t the other candidates say more? Probably because at this point the Obama economy doesn’t look too bad. Put it this way: if you compare unemployment rates over the course of the Obama administration with unemployment rates under Reagan, Mr. Obama ends up looking better – unemployment was higher when he took office, and it’s now lower than it was at this point under Reagan.

O.K., there are many reasons to qualify that assessment, notably the fact that measured unemployment is low in part because of a decline in the percentage of Americans in the labor force. Still, the Obama economy has utterly failed to deliver the disasters — hyperinflation! a plunging dollar! fiscal crisis! — that just about everyone on the right predicted. And this has evidently left the Republican presidential field with nothing much to say.

To be fair, Bush wasn’t the only governor or former governor spinning the performance of his state’s economy at the debate; John Kasich and Scott Walker did, too, and only the exclusion of Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Jim Gilmore prevented a vast sea of verbal sewage on the subject. But what’s really changed is that Republicans can no longer treat the “Obama economy” as a self-evident disaster. And because “the economy” has long been an excuse for all sorts of conservative ideological indulgences that actually have nothing to do with the economy, that’s a problem.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.