One of the most exasperating Democratic failures of the last two years has been the Dems inability to turn high unemployment into a winning political issue. To many progressive Democrats the failure seems literally incomprehensible. After all, millions of Americans are deeply and painfully affected by job losses and opinion polls show with absolute consistency that voters strongly accord “creating jobs” a higher priority than deficit reduction. This holds true across an extraordinarily wide variety of different polls and question wordings.
Given these two facts, many progressives conclude that the only plausible explanation for the Dems failure is their timidity and fear of challenging conservative myths with sufficient boldness. Had Democratic candidates and officeholders displayed sufficient passion and commitment on this issue — and championed genuinely aggressive action to create jobs — many progressives and grass-roots Dems argue that they would surely have been able to mobilize the huge latent well of support that the opinion data shows must exist within the electorate.
It is easy to sympathize with the intense frustration that motivates these views but the reasons why Dems have had less success with the jobs issue than seems warranted are more complex than simply a lack of sufficient passion or commitment. It’s important to understand these deeper causes because they suggest more effective strategies for the future.
Why the opinion poll data is less clear-cut than it appears.
The key problem that must be recognized is that the apparently unambiguous support opinion polls suggest for creating jobs is actually extremely misleading. While creating jobs is indeed consistently given a higher priority than reducing deficits, how this particular fact fits into the larger pattern of public attitudes is far from obvious.
As Democratic pollster guy Mark Melman notes:
It is in the connection [of deficit reduction] to job creation that Democrats misunderstand the tenor of public opinion. Economists, Keynesian and otherwise, along with Democrats, mostly recognize that federal spending creates jobs. Not so voters, at least many of them.
In (a recent) Bloomberg poll, by a nine-point margin, Americans said the better way for the government to create jobs was to cut spending, while smaller numbers opted for “invest[ing] in projects such as high-speed rail, expanding access to broadband Internet,” etc. Indeed, several polls suggest that voters judge cutting federal spending to be the single most effective step government can take to create jobs.
So when Democrats argue that the GOP is focused on spending cuts at the expense of job creation, most Americans shake their heads in disbelief, seeing those cuts as exactly the kind of “stimulus” we need.
For most progressives, who generally have at least a nodding acquaintance with the basic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, it seems almost impossible to believe that substantial numbers of voters can seriously accept this genuinely wacky notion. It appears simply irrational. But when one listens to enough focus groups and other real-world discussions it becomes clear that this view is indeed incredibly pervasive. People will frequently say that “Only private business creates “real” jobs. Government just takes money away from the private sector and transfers it to government bureaucrats and lazy civil servants”. The fact that this view is objectively false does not make it any less common or deeply held.
Another leading Democratic pollster, Guy Molyneaux, seconds Melman’s point:
The public-opinion data on this point, unfortunately, is unambiguous…To be sure, voters do still put jobs and the economy ahead of the deficit in a head-to-head contest of their leading concerns. However, such poll questions assume a choice — reduce the deficit or improve the economy — which voters do not actually perceive. Instead, the public believes deficit reduction is an important step for growing the economy. Indeed, other polling Hart Research conducted in February showed that by a margin of 50 percent to 40 percent, voters believe that reducing the deficit and cutting government spending is a better way to improve the economy than investing in America’s infrastructure, education, renewable energy, and new technology.