Comparing Presidents, Comparing Parties
Regular readers know I’m not a rabid Democrat. My own opinion, stated several times, is that the best that can be said about the Democrats is that they’re better than the Republicans. Considering what the Republican party looks like in my opinion, we’re not talking much of an endorsement. Still, I didn’t reach my conclusions blindly. I looked at data. Regular readers know that here at Angry Bear, we do that a lot.
Now, one thing I’ve done on occasion is to look at performance by President. Its simplistic, but when you look at enough series, it starts to tell a story, even if you don’t do it systematically. And doing it systematically is hard – sometimes data goes back only to 1980, sometimes it goes back farther. Sometimes I combined short administrations (JFK + LBJ and Nixon + Ford) and sometimes I didn’t. Nevertheless, in every case, my sources are clearly stated, and almost every time, the data comes straight off a government website. In many cases, I still have my spreadsheets lying around somewhere and you’re welcome to them. Here’s what I’ve found so far:
1. Real GDP less per capita. The fastest annualized growth in real GDP per capita occurred under JFK/LBJ. It was followed by Reagan and Clinton, under whom real GDP per capita grew at about the same rate. Then Carter. Then Nixon/Ford, GW, Ike, and GHW. Put another way… out of eight administrations, Democrats make up three of the four fastest growing administrations, and Republicans make up the four slowest growing administrations.
2. Real GDP less federal debt per capita. Because Federal Government spending is added to GDP, it makes sense to remove debt. Going back to 1960, JFK/LBJ, Clinton, and Carter showed the fastest annual increase in real GDP less federal debt per capita. The Republican under whom this measure of wealth grew the fastest was Reagan, and yet he achieved an increase of less than 60% as much per year as Carter. (This was largely due to Reagan’s financing the growth through debt.) I should note that in this same post, I showed that this happened despite the fact that the Federal Reserve generally had more expansionary monetary policy when Republicans were in office. (Exception: JFK/LBJ also benefited from very favorable monetary policy.)
(as an aside to 1. and 2. – I also looked at performance according to which party controls Congress. It turns out that growth is faster with Democratic majorities in Congress than with Republican majorities – regardless of the party affiliation of the President.)
3. National Debt. Beginning with Ike’s term, the biggest annualized percentage increases in the debt per capita have occurred under Reagan, GHW, and GW. (At one point, Republicans could have been described as fiscally conservative. Clearly, that hasn’t been true at least since Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1980.)
4. Real tax collections. When debt is a concern, paying it off is important. We’ve already seen that Republican administrations are less likely to grow their way out of debt. So what about tax collections? Going back to 1952, the administrations with the fastest annual growth in real tax collections per capita were JFK, Clinton, Carter, and LBJ, followed distantly by each of the Republican administration. (The figure for Ike’s term – the fastest for any Republican, was just over one third the figure for the slowest Democrat – LBJ.)
5. Value of the Dollar. The Federal Reserve maintains a price adjusted broad dollar index. Data is available through Ford’s term. Only under Clinton and Reagan did the dollar rise in value (and by more than twice as much under Clinton than under Reagan). In November, when I did the analysis, GW came in third, ahead of Carter. Given recent trends, I wonder how many people would bet on GW ending his term ahead of Carter in this measure.
6. Health care costs. The face of healthcare changed a lot in the 1960s when JFK and LBJ created the “Great Society.” Since LBJ left office, annualized real private healthcare expenditures per capita increased more slowly under both Clinton and Carter than under any Republican President. (Even LBJ would have ranked third best among the Republicans, behind Ford and Nixon, but better than Reagan, GHW, and GW.) And real total (public and private) healthcare costs per capita? Once again, Clinton and Carter did better than any of the Republicans in the sample.
1. Abortions and unwed motherhood. Data for abortions and unwed motherhood is available going back to 1980. In that time, Clinton is the only President in whose term there was a decrease in the number of births that occurred to unmarried mothers. Clinton was also the President under whom the annual growth in births to unmarried women as a percentage of total births was the slowest – at less than one third rate under either Reagan or GHW, for comparison. The yearly percentage decrease in the number of abortions was greatest (by far) under Clinton, as was the yearly percentage change in the rate of abortions per 1,000 live births.
2. Marriages and divorces. With data going back to 1960, subtracting the divorce rate from the marriage rate, we find that the only President under whom net marriages increased since 1970 (when annual data is available) was Carter. For the remaining Presidents, the rate of net marriages declined by less per year under Clinton than the rest of the Presidents – three times than under GHW, and nine times less than in the Nixon/Ford years.
3. Sexually transmitted diseases. This one is more complicated – a lot of data, much of it patchy. But rates of Syphillis, Chlamydia, and AIDS either decreased the most or increased by less under Clinton than other Presidents. (Only for the former is data available going back before Reagan.) Clinton also showed the second fastest decrease in gonorrhea rates, after GHW. In fairness, the post also notes there might be a good reason for Republicans not to want to reduce the incidences of these diseases – as a general rule, GW did better in states where STD occurrence was highest. It would be a lot to ask a political party to eliminate its own base.
4. Youth crime. Government data (childstats) goes back to 1980. Clinton did (by far) the best job at cutting violent teen crimes. (In fairness, it must be pointed out that only Clinton did cigarette, alcohol and drug use increase under Clinton.)
I’m pretty sure I looked at some other data sets… anyone remember anything I left off the list?
For economic issues I’ve looked at, it seems to be a slam dunk. Republicans simply performed worse. On every measure. Period. End of story.
For social issues… Republicans did better on teen cigarette, alcohol, and drug use. GHW also managed to do well on containing gonorrhea, though not much else. (And by “not much else”, I mean not only at not containing other STDs, but really, truly, not much else, whether in the social or economic sphere.) Otherwise… whether reducing the incidence of abortion, decreasing teen motherhood, encouraging marriage, reducing the incidence of most STDs, or cutting teen violent crimes, Democrats did better.
I look at this list and a few thoughts come to mind:
1. Its possible to explain any of these series as a coincidence or the fault of a business cycle or demographics or whatnot. But all of them, or even most of them? At some point, one has to conclude that either God punishes us for voting Republican, or Republican policies are simply more damaging than Democratic policies.
2. This post is starting to look pretty long. I’ll write up my explanation of what I think is going on another post some time soon. The short answer, as noted just above, is that I think Republican policies are harmful.
3. This really looks like a book… I gotta find the time to write it. Or find someone who can do much of the writing.
Finally, two administrative notes. One is to thank reader QrazyQat for asking that all my “President posts” be placed in one spot. The other is to ask you all, the readers – what else should I be looking at.
Correction. Reader John pointed out that several links went to the wrong place. That’s fixed now. Sorry.
I appreciate the information! But, has anyone considered whether Congress is more powerful than the president, and if the same data can be applied to Rep. vs. Dem.-controlled Congressional periods?