- - Sunday, November 2, 2014


Ahh, those pesky midterm elections are here again. You know, those elections where most voters pay no attention whatsoever? After all, it’s not as if we’re voting on a change of residents at the White House. For many voters, the midterms are not as much about the individual candidates being elected to the House and Senate as they are a referendum over how well the president’s party has performed in delivering on its promises.

This election cycle is even more typical of the general trend. Exceptions like 1998 aside, the incumbent president’s party nearly always has lagged nationwide and lost seats in both chambers as incumbent-party voters have significantly lower turnouts than the opposition party’s. This time is not different, except that even the opposition Republican voters seem to be more apathetic than usual, skeptical that something actually will come of their vote. In 2010, 76 percent of eligible voters were aware of the midterm elections; by contrast, only 68 percent of those who responded to the latest Pew Research poll were even aware midterms were occurring this year.

As usual, the party not in control of the White House has claimed that the midterms are a referendum on the president’s performance. Among the chief concerns raised by Republican candidates all around the country were the administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis, foreign policy related to the threat of the Islamic State group and the state of the economy.

The whole Ebola response unfortunately has become a political hot potato, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments vying for the title of least competent. And while a president’s foreign policy performance is generally a matter of partisan debate, surely the state of the economy is a more objective measure of performance. Wait, the state of the economy? According to the Congressional Budget Office, we’ve had 48 consecutive months of employment growth. The official unemployment rate stands at about 5.9 percent. Moreover, the economy grew at a rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2014. What’s everyone complaining about?

Well, here it gets a bit more complicated. While President Obama would like to say that the midterms are a referendum on the state of the economy and rattle off the top-line numbers, the actual state of affairs has been markedly different.

First, while unemployment has declined, so has labor force participation. Some studies have suggested that labor force participation among working-age men is at an all-time low, even controlling for structural factors. Thus, the top-line unemployment, or U3, measures the number of unemployed as a percent of the civilian labor force, and at 5.9 percent, that’s a respectable number, especially considering where it was six years ago when the president took office.

However, a look below the hood at the U6, which also includes people “marginally attached to the labor force,” shows that number at an alarming 11.8 percent. This number suggests that the official labor force is excluding a significant number of individuals who, given the choice, would like full-time employment.

Furthermore, many of the jobs that have been added to the economy seem to be of lower quality than the jobs the economy lost the previous recession. Wall Street financial performance, which many view as a significant cause of the recession in the first place, has reached record levels over the past year. So Mr. Obama has had to carefully temper his desire to trumpet the top-line economic numbers, with the reality that the recovery has been unevenly distributed — the lion’s share of gains going to investors and not wage earners.

On the other hand, the Democrats promised their base benefits that they could not deliver in the lean years. There were no major fiscal policy initiatives supporting employment, and unemployment benefits and food stamps were cut in the budget deal. Government worker unions, such as teachers unions and other state and local employee unions, felt the pinch, especially in places like Detroit, which required major financial restructuring. Despite major symbolic victories such as increased inclusion of gays in the military and signing an equal-pay bill into the law, the Democratic base feels that the president has failed to deliver for them in his second term. So, while there is a feeling that Mr. Obama cares about the issues that concern Democratic voters, there is a severe lack of confidence that he is capable of delivering.

Perhaps the biggest “take-home” among all these competing priorities and shifting sentiments is that the two-party system is an imperfect mechanism for governing in an environment that demands more political nuance than usual. Voters have not been able to get enough of what they want from either party without getting too much of what they don’t want from both.

There are too few alternatives outside the two-party system for both expressing voter concerns and making a difference in policy outcomes. The party that wins is usually too mortgaged to special interests and too saddled with the power dynamics to pay attention to its base. And the party in the minority is generally too focused and ideologically closed to garner a governing coalition.

If this is not the very definition of a madhouse straitjacket, I don’t know what is.

Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee online magazine.



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