When unemployment reached 9.5 percent last week, the 24-hour news cycle reflexively rushed to judgment: Did this mean the Obama economic policy was failing? Of course not. Obama's recovery plan is only beginning to jolt the channels of demand and production, and White House and Treasury advisors have long since discarded January's rosier grim predictions of 8 percent joblessness as the cost of the Bush bust; they now warn that the figure will go above 10 percent or 11 percent. But why waste a chance for an early warning that the president's in trouble—as we were confidently, and incorrectly, told he was on the passage of the stimulus package and the House vote on the energy bill?
The fireworks over the unemployment figure afforded Republicans some temporary relief from the soap opera of South Carolina's wayward Gov. Mark Sanford, who conceded that while there may have been other women in addition to his Argentine "soul mate," with the rest of them he never "crossed the ultimate line." The relief was short-lived, blotted out by the aurora borealis of Sarah Palin's graceless, disjointed announcement that she was abruptly abandoning the bother of governing Alaska ("the greatest honor" she could imagine) to "take a stand and effect change" on a broader scale—to be more specific, $100,000 worth of change per paid speech and maybe a chance to lead the GOP down the true believers' road to defeat in 2012.
The media's overblown reaction was to be expected. "Horse-race coverage" was once reserved for elections—everyone wants to know, in advance, who the winner will be. But now, with an unprecedented array of outlets feeding the nation's hunger for instant news, we get horse-race coverage on the process of governing itself, with stories that too quickly discount policies that can't be accurately assessed except in the longer term—or portray passing setbacks in the legislative process as potentially fatal blows. It's the new "new journalism."
But it was illuminating to see how the Republican Party, in a time of imminent irrelevance, pounced on the 9.5 percent jobless number. To the Obama administration, and the country, unemployment is a painful individual tragedy and a national economic problem that has to be solved. Last week, the GOP treated it as a solution to its present state of political catatonia. Party committees and congressional leaders churned out a ream of press releases hailing Obama's failure. "Why hasn't the stimulus worked?" demanded one of them. It's a little like asking indignantly, "Why hasn't Berlin fallen?" the morning after D-Day.
For the GOP, it's another case of buying short-term press at the expense of coherent strategy. The party again reinforced the sense that it has no answers of its own; Republicans came across as transparently eager for a continuing or deepening recession that they can blame on Obama. Now politics ain't beanbag, as we were famously told a century ago; but if your only hope is the other side's downfall, and a prolonged downturn, you're supposed to deny that, not blatantly manifest it.
The GOP will pay a heavy political price if the economy does turn around. That, and not a dire headline 17 or even seven months before the midterm elections, is the reality that counts. And even the midterms are not the decisive benchmark. Recovery didn't come in time for President Reagan in 1982, and his party lost scores of seats in the House. Democrats then were playing their version of today's Republican game; I remember because I wrote some of the attacks. For example, "Ronald Reagan's cheese lines of 1982"—the government was distributing surplus cheese to needy families—"are as unacceptable as Herbert Hoover's bread lines of 1932." It was a fine applause line, but then the recovery set in. Two years later, in the presidential contest, Americans lined up at the ballot box to ratify Reagan's "morning in America" and solidify the Reagan revolution.
I suspect that this time, the reckoning may come sooner for Republicans, but I don't doubt that it will come. I know that's my own premature verdict—and I'm sure the press will deliver more of its own with each new piece of economic news. But the print, the posts, and the sound bites will fade and be forgotten as voters focus on the facts of their lives and standard of life. Inevitably, the Democrats will be punished at the polls if recovery falters; Republicans would profit simply by virtue of the fact that they're the only other choice. So why not respond to an increase in unemployment by saying, "We didn't vote for the stimulus, but for the sake of the country we hope it works"? Instead they position themselves as cheerleaders for economic distress. It's a bad political bet; it yields no upside, but risks plenty of potential downside. It's a bet born of desperation and a bankruptcy of ideas. At least in the early 1980s, Democrats did offer alternative policies; on issues ranging from tax fairness to the minimum wage to civil rights, they were far more than the party of "no."
There's only one place where today's Republican tactics could prove to be on target. Riding recurring waves of press-driven, anxiety-ridden reports—Monday morning's New York Times led with "fears" that volatile oil prices could derail a global revival—the GOP's spectral rhetoric could spook congressional Democrats into a self-destructive period of doubt and disarray. The casualties would be health reform, the energy bill that still has to pass the Senate, and conceivably a second stimulus package—which Vice President Biden just refused to rule out because it may be needed. The other casualties would be the Democrats themselves; instead of changing the country, the outcome would be a change in the balance of political power. And even the Democratic defectors in Congress, as the 1994 midterm election showed, would be unlikely to save themselves.
Under Reagan, Republicans held together through the economic and political storm and then entered a long period of ascendancy—not just for their party but for their ideology. That's the challenge for Obama Democrats in Congress now: to be Obama Democrats, to hold together instead of fracturing into a collection of progressives, Blue Dogs, the wobbly, and the fearful. They have to stand together for change they believe in, even while the opposition markets a brazen politics of doom and gloom. In the end, staying the course is the only way forward for America in a time when the Republicans have no positive vision or program. And for Democrats, it's the only path from Election Night 2008 to their own enduring victory.