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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Limitations of the ‘Do Nothing Congress’ Meme

I was hoping it wasn’t true. But Brendan Nyhan, always with the “it’s the economy stupid” arguments, now has me convinced he is probably right about the limitations of the “do nothing congress” meme as a Democratic battle axe. Here’s Nyhan, writing as a guest columnist for Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, on Dems’ embrace of the meme:

Can President Obama overcome a weak economy and win in 2012 by campaigning against the Republican Congress? The historical evidence for this claim is weaker than his allies would like to admit.
Obama’s strategy seems to be Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign against a “Do-Nothing” Republican Congress. Last week, for instance, David Goldstein of McClatchy Newspapers asked, “Has President Barack Obama been channeling Harry Truman?”
Like most journalists who have written on the subject, Goldstein repeated the conventional wisdom that Truman’s campaign against the “do-nothing Congress” was responsible for his victory: “Facing long odds in the 1948 election, Truman put Republicans in his campaign bull’s-eye and unloaded on the “do-nothing Congress.” He won, and conventional wisdom took a beating.”
This idea, which has been echoed by opinion makers ranging from former New York Times columnist Frank Rich to Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, has given hope to Obama supporters demoralized by the current state of the economy.
Obama himself has paid homage to Truman’s strategy. During a Sept. 15 speech, for instance, he said: “[T]his Congress, they are accustomed to doing nothing, and they’re comfortable with doing nothing, and they keep on doing nothing.”

Nyhan then quotes from an academic article by University at Buffalo, SUNY political scientist James Campbell:

Until recently, for instance, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) figured that GDP in the first half of 1948 (leading into the Truman-Dewey contest) was growing at a healthy 4.1% rate. The BEA’s latest series indicates that this greatly understated growth at the outset of the 1948 campaign. The BEA now figures that the economy was growing at a sizzling 6.8%, a revision that helps explain Truman’s miraculous comeback…

Not content to leave it at that, Nyhan adds,

This well-timed surge in economic growth is likely to have played an important role in the success of Truman’s campaign. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund just downgraded its forecast for US economic growth in 2011 and 2012 to 1.5% and 1.8%, respectively.

Nyhan then presents some depressing charts comparing the very different economic situations facing Truman and Obama to make his point. He concedes that the predictions could be wrong and an unexpected upsurge could help Obama and Dems.
But there’s really no denying Nyhan’s larger point — that it would be folly for Dems to think they can reheat Truman’s “Do Nothing Congress” strategy without the favorable economic trends that gave HST the needed cred.
That doesn’t mean Obama can’t get some leverage from the meme, because, after all, the Republicans really are all about gridlock, and it needs to be said. But let’s not bet the ranch on it.
I do have one admittedly less substantial quibble with Nyhan’s excellent post — the title “Obama 2012: Not Exactly the Truman Show.” Having just returned from a couple of days r&r not far from Seaside, FL, the otherworldly village where “The Truman Show” was filmed, I can report that the town feels much more like a Republican creation, with it’s pricey neo-victorian houses, manicured landscaping and upscale boutiques, by all appearances a not entirely welcome colony of hedge fund prosperity that developers have superimposed on the Redneck Riviera.

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