Over at New Republic yesterday, Brian Beutler made an important but obvious point, If the Midterms Were Held Today, Gas Prices Might Have Saved the Democrats’ Skin. He even provided a nifty graph that shows that as gas prices have gone down, Obama’s approval rating has gone up. Now we all know that correlation is not causation. What’s more, in off-year elections, economic conditions are not well correlated with how people vote. (I suspect that it is correlated with how people would vote if they did vote.) But there is no denying that if the election were held today, the Democrats would do a lot better because of the way the economy has improved over the last two and a half months.
This is sad. As Beutler noted, “That’s a sobering reflection of the capricious nature of politics…” But surely it doesn’t come as a surprise to him. This is the way that our politics always works. This is the reason that the Republican Party has been able to to move to the far right without paying much of a political price for it. It has, after all, abandoned basic competence for a commitment to ideology. And as I hammer away all the time here, we know that it will be able to win the White House in 2016 as long as the economic conditions turn bad. In the simplest of terms: if gas prices go way up in a year and a half, Scott Walker could be our next president.
Of course, it isn’t specifically about gas prices. We’ve been seeing reasonable job growth for about a year now. It is only recently that people have noticed it. I am not saying, however, that Obama and the Democrats should get credit for the improving economy. But given that the electorate blamed the Democrats for the bad economy before, they should credit the Democrats now. And I’m sure they do. Beutler is right: if the election were held today, the Democrats would do much better.
It’s hard not to take this conclusion and throw your hands up, “It’s impossible!” Indeed, it is pretty much random. But the positive side of it is that it frees the Democratic Party in terms of ideology. Many Democrats are afraid that if Elizabeth Warren runs for president, we will lose because she’s too liberal; instead, we must run Hillary Clinton. But in a general election, it will make almost no difference. If the economy is booming in the first three quarters of 2016, we win; if it isn’t, we lose. So we Democrats ought to nominate the person we most like and not the person who we think is most “electable.”
Beyond this, the economic effects on voting patterns is very troubling. It basically means that we live in an oligarchy. The person most important to who becomes the next president is the chair of the Federal Reserve. If she wanted to, Janet Yellen could sabotage the Democrats in 2016 by raising interest rates and tanking the economy. It’s interesting that Paul Volcker did just that to Jimmy Carter — which is what Carter wanted him to do. It was a selfless act on Carter’s part. But what people remember about Carter was that he was a hopeless president, and all the credit due him goes to Ronald Reagan, who actually hurt the economy.
This is American politics. And if you aren’t terrified, you aren’t paying attention.