It is the final week of the campaign, and as the two sides begin to make their closing arguments, CBS’ 60 Minutes dropped a bombshell last night.
For a segment on the economy, the television news magazine added to the official unemployment rate of 9.5 percent the number who had quit looking for work or had accepted part-time jobs because they couldn’t find full-time positions.
What is this true unemployment rate?
Seventeen percent, 22 percent in California, with one-third out of work more than a full year or more (video at http://tiny.cc/h2o6r ).
As the campaign reaches its climax, the president’s narrative is that this catastrophe is the product of what he calls “the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.” To him, that would be policies of lower tax rates and regulatory, spending, and monetary restraint. These are the policies that began with Ronald Reagan in 1981 and that inaugurated a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth, a record unmatched in American and perhaps world history.
We won’t know for sure until Election Day, but as of today, it looks as though the American people aren’t buying the president’s pass-the-buck story, or the special-interests-are-trying-to-buy-this-election story that accompanies it. Instead they see recent policies – the president’s policies — as the more plausible source of our continuing and possibly deepening troubles. To them, those misguided administration actions include trillions in bailouts for the irresponsible and the inept, additional terrifying trillions in federal spending and deficits, regulations that look like backdoor approaches to taking over entire industries, and the greatest tax increase in American history, scheduled to kick in a month and twenty-eight days after the voting.
A large part, perhaps a majority of the American people now clearly believes that, while the president and his Democratic allies in Congress inherited a sharp downturn, they have made it worse. The Obama-Pelosi-Reid government turned what could have been a short contraction into the deepest, most persistent economic crisis since the Great Depression.
In the process, these leaders have set us on course to the all-but-impossible: the effective bankrupting of the United States government. A recent chart running with a Wall Street Journal article by Hoover Institution economists including former Secretary of State George P. Shultz (see http://tiny.cc/6ssto) tells this story. It shows the government on track to annual spending as a percent of gross national product that exceeds the one-year World War II peak of 42 percent. Within twenty-five years, the government will be ingesting at least that much of our economy every single year. Within forty years, the proportion will rise to 55 percent.
So today many, perhaps most American voters would change the famous Ross Perot quip of 18 years ago. They would say that the giant sucking sound you hear is the U.S. government vacuuming up our future.
In recent weeks I have been trying to see how far and fast the developing electoral tide may advance. Every time I think I’ve found the outer limit, someone comes along and argues convincingly that it will go further. Now there is talk of a hundred House seats in play.
Democratic pollster Pat Caddell even argues that the polls are still dramatically understating the movement in opinion this year. The screens other pollsters employ to identify likely voters, he says, are totally inadequate to the turbulent moment. Large numbers who don’t often vote (and so would be routinely eliminated from samples) will show up.
Caddell also argues that the GOP needs to be running national ads making a national case. While I am inclined to agree, I also feel that this year’s tide is running on its own, and very little campaigning on either side will restrain or accelerate it or alter its course.
The Tea Party movement, for example, is not a product of campaign strategies. It is as spontaneous as any political outpouring in the nation’s history. Political leaders may give it a voice, but there is scant sign that they can direct it.
So the Republicans’ closing argument is being made on its own. In eight days we’ll see the results. But with unemployment at unfathomable levels and so much government spending having gone out with nothing to show in return, the dominant narrative of the year is coming, not from the president or his party or even from the Republican Party, but from the people – and it is about to transform American politics for the rest of our lives.