Sucking Sound

Illustration by Dan Goldman

The results of last week’s off-year elections produced plenty of fodder for interpolation by partisans on both sides—some of it valid, some of it loopy, and all of it predictably self-serving. But amid the competing claims and counterclaims, the single fact that struck me most forcefully was one that virtually no one put their finger on. Nearly twenty years after a peculiar little bat-eared billionaire with a penchant for Tourette’s-like outbursts (“It’s just that simple!” “End of story!” “Here’s the beauty part!”) seized an outsize place on the national stage, the spiritual inheritors of the movement he sparked appear to be very much alive and well. Yes, that’s right, the Perot voter is back with a vengeance.

The signs of the resurgence of the Perotista impulse have been apparent for months, as the ranks of self-identified independent voters have swelled (to as high as 43 percent of the electorate, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll), and as those voters have increasingly voiced concerns over everything from Obamacare to the deficit to the federal takeover of G.M. The president’s approval ratings among independents have fallen from over 60 percent in the first half of the year into the mid-forties. And that cohort, which Obama carried in both New Jersey and Virginia last year, sided with GOP gubernatorial candidates Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell last week by 30 points each.

The White House well understands that reclaiming the allegiance of independents is essential to the Democrats’ prospects in 2010—that is, to limiting the number of losses the party is almost certain to suffer, if historical trends hold true. The obvious answer is to emphasize deficit reduction in Obama’s next budget, a goal that OMB director Peter Orszag has consistently indicated is very much in the cards. The equally obvious problem with that approach is the state of the economy: With unemployment headed inexorably into double digits and overall demand still weak, most economists argue that belt-tightening too soon might cripple the recovery, and many contend that what’s needed, indeed, is more stimulus, not less.

The less-obvious case against taking a big whack at the deficit next year is political: that doing so misunderstands the nature of the nouveau Perot voters’ concerns. Though the deficit has long been a signature issue for independents, there are signs that it’s actually a proxy for a free-floating combination of economic anxiety and apoplexy at a political class that (yet again) seems terminally gridlocked. “If there’s a trend, it’s that independents are anti-incumbent; all sitting leadership officials are polling poorly with independents,” says Daily Kos’s Markos Moulitsas. “My theory is that Democrats’ ratings have dropped [among independents] over the year because they have looked ineffectual.” Rich Yeselson, a labor official and keen-eyed Beltway observer adds, “Reduce unemployment, raise wages, and they will be fine—they’ll never talk about the deficit again (even when they should, a few years from now).”

Moulitsas and Yeselson are dedicated men of the left, to be sure—certainly more so than Obama. But the cumulative IQ of the president’s economic team is simply too high for it not to grasp the perils of embracing deficit hawkery before the recession is well and truly over. And his political team is too savvy not to see that motivating the (currently apathetic) Obama base is just as important for 2010 as catering to independents.For Obama, then, the challenge will be how to square the circle. And doing so will require a quality he possesses in spades but that we’ve seen too little of during his months in office: his capacity for persuasive pedagogy. Yeselson suggests an Oval Office speech, complete with Perot-style charts and graphs, explaining the difference between the short-, medium-, and long-term deficits, and the need for further government pump-priming when demand remains so pallid. Such an approach would be a rare combination of good policy and good politics. And that’s the beauty part.

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Sucking Sound