The Recession and the Election
By Jerome Grossman
The dominant issue in the fight for the Democratic nomination for president in 2007 was the war in Iraq: illegal, fraudulent and imperial that wasted thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Senators Biden, Clinton, Dodd and Edwards, all candidates for president, voted in October 2002 to authorize this unnecessary and brutal travesty. Barack Obama, then an obscure State Senator in Illinois opposed the war, achieving special distinction in the presidential field. At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the party nominee, John Kerry, who also voted for the war, gave Obama the opportunity to express his opposition to the war, something that Kerry was afraid to do himself. The Iraq war plus Obama’s remarkable rhetorical gifts and personality propelled him to front runner status.
In 2008, Iraq is no longer the dominant issue for Democrats or the nation. The war continues with obscene death and destruction, Americans want it ended, but Iraq is now on the inside pages, part of the daily news, intensity of feeling diminished, the occupation likely to continue for a generation. Bread and butter issues affecting many more Americans are challenging the confidence of the country in a way that Saddam Hussein could not.
Recession, economic decline and even a depression are confronting the United States and the voters of New Hampshire were the first to sense the dangers. Perhaps that is why the voters defied the polls and gave Hillary the victory. The political effects of this new round of voter concern are fairly obvious. Hillary’s wrong vote on the Iraq war has become less important. Her experience in government becomes more important. She can cite the prosperity of the nation under the Bill Clinton presidency and promise to install the same economic team that brought full employment. Hillary can offer an economic package with a degree of credibility. Her age and experience become an advantage over Obama’s attractiveness and inexperience.
In this new situation, Obama’s inspiring call for hope, unity and change may appear less relevant and lacking in specificity. The voters will want to know what the candidates will do to save their jobs, their homes, their financial futures. Worrying voters will have little patience with rhetoric no matter how brilliant. Even charisma and personality will be downgraded as assets. Abraham Lincoln and FDR became icons only after they solved the problems of their eras, not before.
There will be, indeed there are now different and strongly held views about solving the current economic crisis. The Republicans, led by President Bush, will want to extend the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that favor the investors, eliminate estate taxes, cut capital gains tax, lower corporate tax, install investment tax credits, etc. The Democrats will suggest a stimulus package putting money in the hands of lower income people who will spend it quickly: extending unemployment benefits, grants for home heating, suspension of the gas tax, tax rebates to people with low income, etc.
The next president cannot leave the difficult decisions to the experts. They are notoriously divided in their recommendations and affected by their political orientation. Herbert Hoover had plenty of experts. So did George Bush the Father. Both were slow and indecisive in making economic decisions and paid the price in the next election.
The political question in this time of economic malaise is -- which Democratic candidate can best address the problems, which party can end the recession quickly and effectively. The voters of New Hampshire sensed the problem while the pundits were analyzing nuances. Maybe that is why their answers were Hillary and the Democrats, Hillary because of experience and the Democrats because of their historic attention to the masses. These questions will dominate American politics for the rest of 2008. Once again, it’s the economy, stupid.