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GOLDBERG: Political game of ‘hot potato’

No one wants to get stuck with responsibility for causing a recession

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Warning: What you are about to read is a deeply cynical view of the 2012 elections. If you're looking for puppies and rainbows, check back with me another time.

Many conservatives think this is the most important election in our lifetimes because we desperately need to reverse the damage done by the Obama administration and get the economy moving again.

Indeed, each of the remaining GOP hopefuls makes some version of this argument: He will fix what President Obama (or Washington) has broken. The president, meanwhile, like a little kid smashing a clock with a hammer, says he just needs a little more time to fix everything.

Now, I do, in fact, hold onto the view that presidents matter. But this is a more controversial view among conservatives than one might think, at least when it comes to economic policy. When looked at from the proper altitude, the notion that the president "runs" the economy is fairly ridiculous. The president doesn't have a "Create Jobs" button on his desk he can press.

But he does have a whole bunch of monkey wrenches he can throw into the economic machinery. Like a drunk blind guy with a blowtorch: There are infinite possibilities for making things worse, far fewer for making them better.

I think Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt turned a mere depression into the Great Depression. Not everything FDR did was bad, but very little in the New Deal made the economy better, and much made it worse. This is a controversial position, with many smart people on both sides of the proposition.

What is not controversial is that FDR got the political credit for ending the Depression even though it really didn't end until he stopped trying to fix it, and the economy didn't boom until after he died. Of course, Hoover got the blame for starting the Great Depression because it happened on his watch. To this day, Herbert Hoover remains politically radioactive.

Similarly, liberals continue to believe that big-government policies are effective in no small part because they think FDR fixed the economy with the New Deal.

Here's the problem: If you look around the world, it turns out that whichever party came in to "fix" the Great Depression, after it was well under way, got credit for ending it. And whoever was in power when it started got the blame.

In 1932, American voters threw out the Republicans, and the economy improved, so voters rewarded the Democrats. "In Britain and Australia," writes Princeton's Larry Bartels, "voters replaced Labor Governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved."

And so on. Whoever happened to be at the switch when things got a little better got rewarded. Mr. Bartels argues that if the recession of 1938 had come two years earlier, during the 1936 presidential election - allegedly the most ideologically realigning election of the 20th century - FDR almost certainly would have been a one-termer. Similarly, if energy prices and the economy had improved late in 1980, Jimmy Carter might have been re-elected and today would be remembered as a very successful president.

While President Obama is responsible for many bad policies, right now it seems his fate is related directly to the price of gas.

The lesson for 2012, for cynics at least, is not that Republicans should vote for Mitt Romney - or any other Republican - because his policies will create jobs and get the economy moving again. Rather, it is that when the economy really gets moving again, Americans will ascribe those advances to Republican policies. Likewise, if Mr. Obama stays in office for another four years, odds are good - though perhaps not great - that the economy eventually will start to get better and Americans will give him credit for a rebound he, in fact, delayed more than created.

Now obviously, it's all more complicated than this. Presidents do things that affect the long-term trajectory of the economy, for good or for ill. And they do other things that are very important, too. (Indeed, the idea that we elect presidents to "run" the economy is a very recent notion.)

Still, there's reason to believe that ideological realignments in this country are not necessarily the product of careful analysis and rigorous reasoning. Rather, they are the result of people assigning blame to the guy who just happens to be in charge when the data hit the fan.

It's not exactly a St. Crispin's Day speech for partisans on either side, but it is a reason to care who wins, at least a little.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book "The Tyranny of Cliches" (Sentinel HC, May 2012). 

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