Fred Barnes and the right's wishful election spin

Unemployment? What unemployment? Obama's real problem is that he's refused to move to the right!

Published November 2, 2010 5:46PM (EDT)

Fred Barnes
Fred Barnes

Fred Barnes, to judge from his Op-Ed in today's Wall Street Journal, would prefer to think of the looming GOP midterm tide as a broad, deep and lasting repudiation of liberalism and the Democratic Party -- the American public's way of saying to conservatives, "You've been right all along, and we're with you from here on out."

Thus, he writes that Democrats are poised to lose big not because joblessness is stuck near 10 percent, or because the economy and incomes aren't really growing, but because President Obama has failed to move to the right this year:

Yes, the economy is always a factor in elections. But a wretched economy doesn't automatically doom Washington's ruling party to disaster in a midterm election. Since World War II, the average midterm loss by the president's party is 24 House and four Senate seats. In 1982, despite a deep recession and joblessness above 10%, Republicans lost only 26 House seats and none in the Senate. The difference between 1982 and today is that President Reagan's policies—cutting spending and taxes, firing striking air-traffic controllers—were popular.

He's wrong. Plain, dead and demonstrably wrong. I've written about this over and over, but here's the abbreviated version: Reagan's political standing in the 1982 midterm elections was identical to Obama's today. With unemployment pushing over 10 percent, his approval rating had fallen to the low 40s and -- contrary to Barnes' assertion -- clear majorities of voters concluded that his economic policies were failing. For instance:

* A New York Times/CBS News poll in October 1982 found that voters disapproved of Reagan's handling of the economy by a 57 to 37 percent margin

* By a 61 to 33 percent margin in an October '82 Washington Post/ABC News poll, voters rejected Reagan's claim that the country was "better off" than it had been when he took office

* In the same poll, 64 percent of voters said they disapproved of Reagan's handling of unemployment -- which, overwhelmingly, they listed as their top economic concern

Moreover, the claim that Reagan's GOP did OK in the '82 midterm by losing "only" 26 seats is pure revisionism. Republicans only had 191 seats to begin with (compared to 255 for Democrats today); there just weren't as many seats in play. His Senate assertion is also misleading. Among the Republicans who survived in '82 were Lowell Weicker, John Chafee and John Heinz -- liberals who regularly broke with their party and who owed their success to their distance from the Reagan White House. Here's how an aide to Pete Wilson, the Republican who beat Jerry Brown in California's Senate race that fall, assessed Reagan's effect on the electorate: "'He has polarized and activated the Democrats" and spurred a backlash that has made ''the Democratic coalition look stronger than it has since the Depression.''

Barnes is wrong. '82 was a very bad year for Reagan and the GOP and voters were not confident in his policies. Then, as now, the economy created a brutal political climate for the governing party, which explains why Reagan's approval rating slipped further in the months after the election, as unemployment soared to 11 percent. Only when the economy improved did Reagan's numbers bounce back.

Reading way too much into election results that can be explained by simple structural factors is what ideologues do. If you're on the right like Barnes it's just not that fun to, say, watch Harry Reid lose in Nevada and conclude that the result is largely a reflection of swing voters' predictable displeasure with the ruling party in the face of near-double digit unemployment. It's much more satisfying to take the result as an affirmation of your ideology: Sharron Angle ran as an uncompromising conservative -- and she won! See, the people have come around! The left has done this, too, of course: After those '82 midterms, many Democrats mistakenly concluded that Reagan's 1980 victory had been a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. 

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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