The theory that Republicans are deliberately thwarting economic progress has its roots in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. Democrats have preferred to count on a steady recovery to make their case, but grim economic news of late has them wondering if nailing the GOP for sabotage may be their best hope of winning on Election Day.
“I don’t have any doubt at this point — the Republicans are clearly rooting for recession as hard as they can,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who believes the Obama campaign should aggressively make the argument. “People need to know what’s happening and there’s nothing wrong with explaining it. Republicans’ actions give more and more credibility to [the notion], and if independent voters become convinced of it they’ll be furious.”
Lately the charge has taken on a new vigor, from progressive commentary to the highest echelons of the Democratic totem pole. Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod last Sunday said Republicans have been “high-fiving each other on days when there is bad news.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Tuesday pointedly accused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) of seeking to sabotage the economy for partisan gain.
“That’s bullshit,” retorted Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel.
A weak economy would undoubtedly be a political boon to Republicans on Election Day. But will voters believe they’re deliberately seeking that outcome?
Survey data from late last year suggest the public can be sold. Obama’s economic poll numbers are underwater, but congressional Republicans are a more unpopular bunch, and moderates and independents are susceptible to believing they’re up to no good. Strong jobs figures in the first few months of the year created a renewed sense of hope for the recovery, but with the number of added jobs dwindling as of late, the sabotage argument has made a comeback.
Though many see it as a likely last resort, not all experts are convinced it will work.
“If the economy slows, then Democrats have little choice but to run against the Republican House. But the tactic has little chance of success,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Truman won in 1948 not because of his attacks on Congress, but because the economy was doing well for most of the year. People hold the president accountable for the state of the economy. When it prospers, presidents win. When it doesn’t, they lose.”
Proponents have pointed to scraps of evidence that support the broader point that the GOP lock-step opposition to Obama’s agenda has a partisan motive. A recent book by Robert Draper details a private meeting on inauguration night wherein Republican bigwigs plotted to derail the Obama presidency. Republican-turned-Democratic former Sen. Arlen Specter said he was privy to some of those early conversations. Liberals also point to Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) “Waterloo” remark and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s infamous 2010 quote, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Economics writers also question why Republicans have turned sharply against deficit spending to boost the economy since Obama took office, after having historically supported the concept while in power. Last year’s self-inflicted debt ceiling near-crisis shook confidence in Congress’s ability to carry out its most basic functions, and Republicans are signaling a return to the same brinkmanship as early as later this year.
GOP leaders balk at the claim. “If Republicans wanted failure, we’d support this President’s misguided economic policies,” said McConnell on the Senate floor Monday.
But don’t expect Democrats to let up on the attacks unless Republicans change course.
“Republicans have shown that they are absolutely committed to blocking Democrats’ attempts to boost the economy and get workers back on the job,” said a senior Democratic aide. “So we are certainly going to continue making sure the American people know that whatever the Republicans’ motives are, the end result is that the economy and middle class families suffer.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.