Legends of the Fall: The Myths of Politics

Legends of the Fall: The Myths of Politics

By Lou Cannon - October 12, 2012

"If you tell the same story five times, it's true," White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes said in 1983, using a Southern adage to defend an apocryphal story told by President Ronald Reagan. Some skeptics regarded Speakes' comment as more a confession than a defense, but he was certainly on to something.

Throughout history, dubious political statements have acquired the force of accuracy through repetition, the pace of which has quickened in the age of the Internet. The false and oft-refuted statement that President Obama was born outside the United States continues to circulate on various blogs. Loony charges also dog Mitt Romney. Most recently, a story making the rounds on the Web alleged that Romney used a cheat sheet to best Obama in their first debate. The white object he pulled from his pocket, on which this fiction was based, turned out to be a handkerchief.

Mainstream journalists and politicians who scoff at the blatant falsehoods of the fringes also unknowingly repeat false statements they have accepted as true. Take, for instance, the claim that most new Republicans elected in 2010, when the GOP won control of the House of Representatives, are rabble-rousers who identify with the Tea Party. It’s inaccurate. “One frequent media-driven misconception is that the GOP freshmen class is full of trouble-making hardliners out of step with their marginal districts,” observes David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “As a matter of fact, only 19 of the 87 freshmen joined the Tea Party Caucus, a sign that most see the Tea Party as a big liability and don’t want to end up being ‘one-term wonders.’ ”

This distancing from the Tea Party is one reason Republicans are favored this year to retain control of the House, in which the GOP currently holds a 241-194 edge. Wasserman predicts that Democrats will gain no more than 10 seats, leaving them well short of the 218 needed for control. The latest RealClearPolitics average of House races gives the GOP a 226-183 lead, with 26 tossups.

Turning to the presidency, it’s an axiom among journalists and politicians that a high jobless rate is ruinous to an incumbent’s re-election prospects. Romney’s early overconfidence may have reflected this conventional wisdom; he apparently did not believe that Obama could survive an unemployment rate that’s been above 8 percent during most of his presidency. (It dipped to 7.8 percent in September, cheering Democrats anxious for good news after the Obama-Romney debate.)

Although high joblessness is never a plus for a president seeking re-election, history suggests it is a surmountable obstacle. Two of the great U.S. political landslides -- Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 48-state victory in 1936 and Ronald Reagan’s 49-state win in 1984 -- occurred despite high unemployment. Unemployment was roughly 17 percent in 1936. In October 1984, the month before Reagan was re-elected, unemployment was 7.3 percent.

To take two other 20th century examples, unemployment was higher when Dwight Eisenhower won his second term in 1956 than when he won his first in 1952 and significantly higher when Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972 than when he was originally elected in 1968.

Elections are as much about the future as the past. What matters most in terms of an incumbent’s fortunes is less the unemployment data than the opinion of voters on the direction of the economy. Joblessness in 1936 was seven points lower than in 1932, easily enabling FDR to win the argument that voters were better off than they had been under Herbert Hoover. Reagan’s rhetorical question of 1984 -- “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” -- was a variant on an FDR line in a 1934 radio speech in which he urged Americans to vote for Democratic congressional candidates.

The belief that unemployment is the decisive statistic in a re-election campaign became imbedded in media consciousness in 1992 by what might be called the Carville Doctrine. Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville vividly identified the chief issue in the campaign by declaring: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The jobless rate at the time -- 7.5 percent compared to 5.5 percent four years earlier -- certainly contributed to the defeat of President George H.W. Bush. It wasn’t, however, the only factor. Bush was softened up by a third candidate, Ross Perot, who received nearly 19 percent of the vote. He was also damaged by a three-way debate in which Clinton engaged the audience, while Perot rambled and Bush looked at his watch. It’s unknowable how the election would have turned out without Perot in the race, but it’s clear that more than the unemployment rate was involved in Bush’s defeat.

The 1992 campaign also advanced a false corollary of the Carville Doctrine, which is that foreign policy doesn’t matter in presidential campaigns. That idea took root because Bush’s approval ratings had been stratospheric when the Gulf War ended successfully on February 28, 1991, then plummeted as the economy declined.

The importance of foreign policy in presidential elections will be the subject of a subsequent column. Suffice to say here that polls once gave Obama an edge on foreign policy and Romney an advantage on economic policy have converged. Obama is doing better on economic issues, while Romney has closed the gap on foreign policy, a featured topic in the next two presidential debates.

So stay tuned -- but beware of pronouncements from any quarter that the election will turn on unemployment or any other single factor. No matter how many times such statements are repeated, they aren’t necessarily true. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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