The Lens of the 2012 Election

People have been asking me what I think of the Obama administration’s budget for 2012, as well as Republican plans to cut government spending. My thought in both cases is this: it’s all understandable – even predictable – if you recognize that both sides have one primary goal right now: to win the presidential election in 2012.

The Republicans: Excellent Students of Political Economy

Republicans in Washington, it is clear to me, have no interest in deficit reduction. (There may be an exception to this generalization, but I can’t think of any off hand, and would welcome suggestions.) Why do I assert this? Simply because none of them have proposed a serious plan to significantly and realistically reduce the budget deficit. No, not even Paul Ryan.

Furthermore, they have no discernable moral or ideological position on the size of the federal government. True, many Republicans have talked a lot about “out-of-control government” since Obama became president, echoing and amplifying the wild-eyed ways many of them talked about the federal government’s excessive reach (black helicopters and all) under the Clinton administration. But when a Republican is president they have no qualms about increasing the size or responsibilities of the federal government. (Think TSA and Medicare prescription drug benefit, for example.)

My conclusion is that Republicans in Washington right now are driven by one very simple and clear objective: to recapture the White House in 2012. Everything they say or do must be interpreted in that context, and then it all makes sense.

Next, we must recognize that they are also excellent students of political economics. In particular, they have taken to heart the lesson that the state of the economy is probably the single most important factor in determining which party wins the election for President. (Though there’s some debate about whether the “state of the economy” in this context is the level of income or its growth rate.)

Well, the equation is then pretty simple:

(Desire to beat Obama in 2012) + (Obama is more beatable if economy is bad) = Do what you can to make the state of the economy bad.

Yes, the cynicism and cold-heartedness embodied in this equation is truly breathtaking. But it explains a lot.

Why propose dramatic cuts in government spending? Because they will help make the state of the economy bad. Very effectively.

Why not worry about the unemployment effects of spending cuts? Because that’s an inevitable part of helping to make the state of the economy bad. (In other words, increased unemployment is exactly the point, silly!)

Why reduce aid to states facing their own budget crises? Because that is also an extremely efficient way to help make the state of the economy bad.

It’s a simple equation, and once you understand that the Republicans also understand this equation, and furthermore, that it is the one thing they deeply believe in, then Republican behavior in Washington becomes explicable and even predictable.

The Obama Administration: It’s All About the Middle 20%

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has just put out its budget for 2012. The cuts proposed by the administration have mystified many on the left. But they’re easy to explain if you believe that, given Republican control of Congress, the budget is purely a political document. As anything other than a political document the budget proposal is irrelevant.

And therefore the main usefulness of the 2012 budget proposal (from the Obama administration’s point of view) is if can somehow help Obama’s reelection chances.

For the Obama administration, the calculus works like this:

1. The chance of reelection depends mainly on the state of the economy. We need to do what we can to prevent the Republicans from actively making the economy worse over the next year, they think to themselves, but that’s probably the limit of what is possible regarding the economy. So let’s move on.

2. Given the state of the economy, the Obama administration reasons, the primary goal of purely political acts (such as the preparation of the 2012 budget proposal) must be to do whatever else can be done to persuade the “middle 20%” of Americans to vote for Obama. (40% of Americans will vote against him no matter what, and 40% will vote for him no matter what.) Note that this is the opposite of the Roveian strategy of firing up and turning out the base to win elections, but it is clearly what Obama’s political advisors believe.

3. The middle 20% will be more likely to vote for him if they think he’s in the middle himself – compromising, striking a balance between left and right, etc.

4. The 2012 budget proposal is a very good way for the Obama administration to persuade the middle 20% that Obama is in the middle himself. It offers some real cuts – including cuts that the left hates. It makes some gestures toward deficit reduction. But it is not as vicious as the Republican alternative, and leaves the entitlement programs that are loved by the middle 20% completely alone.

This calculus suggests to me that the 2012 budget proposed by the administration has exactly accomplished their goal: it has generated howls of protest from both left and right, thus helping to persuade the middle 20% that he’s in the middle, too.