We’re told by people who are paid to know such things that there are vanishingly few undecided voters in this election cycle — and that such undecided voters as do exist are more likely than not to be white baby boomers who live in the Midwest and are unaffiliated with either major party. They are self-described moderates, and they’re decidedly pessimistic about the trajectory of the economy.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of one of these voters as he (or she) takes in the primetime speeches at both national conventions.
Last week the Republicans told him that President Obama has racked up an unprecedented amount of debt and failed to produce the kind of economic recovery he promised four years ago. More specifically, GOP governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and New Jersey’s Chris Christie told him, with no small amount of pride, that they had balanced their states’ budgets, and brought their public-sector employees to heel.
You can see how this pitch would make intuitive sense to a swing voter. Obama = out-of-control spending and debt = weak recovery. Republicans = tough talkers who get their fiscal houses in order.
This week, Democrats began making the case to this hypothetical moderate Midwestern baby boomer that, Look: You lived through the Bush years. How’d that work out for you? Now they’re promising to do the same — tax cuts for the rich again, how imaginative! — and expecting different results.
Again, imagine this voter’s wheels’ spinning: The Bush years were lousy, sure, but, jeez — that’s an awful lot of debt, and things don’t seem to be getting any better now. So…
I can’t predict with high confidence how this small but vitally important cohort of voters is going to break in November. But I think I can locate the root of their indecision, the reason they might find both parties’ core messages to be at least somewhat persuasive: Over the last decade, the entire political class, at both the federal and state levels, banked on economic growth that never materialized and on wealth that eventually vanished.
The Republicans, under President Bush, cut income taxes, prosecuted two foreign wars, and expanded Medicare without giving much thought as to how they’d pay for it all in the long run. The Dow 36,000 mentality, even as it was almost immediately discredited by the dot-com crash, prevailed. We still were headed to the sunny uplands of the “Ownership Society,” where home values would continually increase, world without end.
The 2008 crash unmasked another painful reality: State governments — especially in Democrat-friendly California, Illinois, and New Jersey had been undercontributing to their pension systems and wildly overestimating future market growth.
The memory of the failures of Bush fiscal policy is fresh in the minds of all but the most dedicated conservative ideologue. Yet at the state level it’s been Republicans like Walker and Christie who have ridden their way to national fame by confronting Democratic legislators and their public-sector constituencies.
This is an impressionistic sketch at best, but I think at the heart of Indecision 2012 is this wavering verdict: The Republicans screwed up badly, but it’s possible they’re the ones who can fix the mess.