It was a Democrat — James Carville — who coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid.” And to this day, leading Democrats understand that Carville was correct. They get it all the way down to their trembling bones. They’d love to take dramatic steps to improve the economy, but Republicans are using every tool at their disposal to prevent that. It’s led Democrats to blame Republicans explicitly for causing Americans economic pain for short-term political gain, but it also means we’re not going to see much in the way of economy-improving legislation in the months ahead.
“They think the worse the economy is come November, the better they’re going to do election wise,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a press conference this morning.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) echoed that analysis last month on a conference call with reporters.
“If [the GOP] can stop the recovery from occurring, if they can create as much pain as possible, people will be angry and will not vote at all or will vote against those in the majority,” she implored.
With Republicans pushing for tax cuts for the rich and blocking unemployment benefits, you can see where they’re coming from. And yet, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent, and a midterm election threatening to sweep them out of power on Capitol Hill, Democrats are trapped and running out of time.
They can’t pass anything other than modest stimulative measures without running into obstruction, mostly from Republicans — but they face similar obstacles within their own party. Compounding matters is the fact that the Senate schedule is packed to the brim with other must-pass initiatives and that the White House is divided over whether the President should press Congress to spend more money (stimulus) or to retreat into deficit reduction mode (anti-stimulus).
With leadership like that nobody (particularly at the White House) is picking up a megaphone and demanding Congress (particularly Republicans) do something significant to reduce unemployment. And they’re not gonna.
“Look at what we had to go through for the last eight weeks,” said Reid’s spokesman Jim Manley. “The fact is that we have a Republican party that’s betting on this President to fail. We’ll continue to look at additional efforts to provide help for the economy but the fact is in this heavily polarized Senate, it’s very difficult to get stuff done.”
Checkmate. Suddenly, a picture has emerged of Democrats stumbling toward November with nothing to show the unemployed, only to feel the full wrath of a disenchanted electorate.
“I think Americans are angry,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer at his weekly press availability yesterday. “They were angry in 2006. They were angry in 2008. They changed leadership. They are still angry. Their economy is still not working the way it ought to work…. Unfortunately their anger, which should be focused on not returning to the Bush-Hastert-Boehner-McCain policies,” is now redirected at Democrats.
The problem is that, to counter that perception, Democrats would have to take significant legislative steps right now to lower unemployment (let alone to keep it from growing). But there’s no easy way for them to do that, so instead, with a double-dip recession threatening, they’re taking an incremental route.
“President Obama will continue to press Congress to extend unemployment benefits and pass commonsense measures to strengthen our economic recovery - like extending unemployment insurance and COBRA, supporting our clean energy economy, providing aid to state and local governments, and saving the jobs of thousands of teachers,” reads a statement from Obama’s top economic adviser Larry Summer’s today.
Contrast that with the assessment of Obama’s chief political adviser, David Axelrod, who this weekend shrugged off the idea that we’ll be seeing much, if any, job-growth legislation this year.
“Well, I think it’s true that there’s not a great — there’s not a great desire [on Capitol Hill], even though there’s some argument for additional spending, in the short-run, to continue to generate economic activity,” Axelrod sighed. “There’s not a great appetite for it.”
Axelrod urged Republicans to support two measures headed to the Senate floor shortly: an unemployment benefits extension bill and small business lending package. But those are the only passable remnants of what was once a much more significant spending package— one which has had to be whittled down time and again to win support, first from conservative Democrats, and then from moderate Republicans.
Dems will finally be able to make some headway next week. Currently they’re one vote shy of the 60 they need to overcome a filibuster and pass the unemployment extension bill, which would extend benefits to long-term unemployed people into the fall. They’ll get that vote when West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin appoints a senator to replace Robert Byrd (though currently a lone Democrat — Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) — is joining the Republicans to block the Democrats from doing something now).
The near-impasse in the Senate, and the mixed messages from the White House make House Democrats, who’ve passed several jobs bills, furious — but no less concerned for their own electoral prospects. What the House does, Hoyer said is “contingent to some degree on what the Senate does with unemployment insurance and the supplemental, both of which we have sent over to the Senate.”
Nancy Pelosi, according to recent reports, was livid this week after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested on Sunday that Democrats might lose the House. Underlying that anger, though, is the fact that Pelosi has done her part to address the bleak economy and now, in a cruel irony, the relative inaction of the White House and Senate is leaving House Dems disproportionately vulnerable to big losses in the fall.
It’s true, of course, that the Senate rules are stacked against the Democrats, and allow the GOP to block almost everything. But still: This is not the sort of infighting you see when a party’s on stable footing ahead of an election.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.