On yesterday’s Sunday news shows, Democrats doubled down on their preferred issue of the new year: income inequality and unemployment insurance. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and senior Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer railed at Republican opponents of extending unemployment benefits and sought to portray the GOP as a conclave of heartless Scrooge McDucks chuckling while the jobless suffer. This is good politics for liberals, whose New Year’s resolution was to do everything in their power to change the national political conversation from the ObamaCare debacle, as well as good television. Given the popularity of these proposals, the discussion about the course of the debate has largely followed the lines Democrats like. Thus, the reluctance of most congressional Republicans, especially the leadership of the House of Representatives, to act on President Obama’s proposal to again extend unemployment insurance plays into themes that work well for Democrats such as fairness, conservative apathy about the “47 percent” who get federal benefits (to use Mitt Romney’s infamous and foolish formulation), and a “do-nothing Congress” led by a dysfunctional Republican Party.
It’s debatable whether Republicans are doing themselves a favor by opposing the president on issues where he and his allies can appear to claim the high moral ground. But there are two main problems with this strategy for the Democrats. One has to do with how much traction these liberal talking points really have with the electorate in a midterm election year in which Democrats are defending far more competitive House and Senate seats than their opponents. The other goes to whether Democrats are actually serious about helping the unemployed or anyone else disadvantaged by the income inequality they’ve been talking about. If their genuine goal were to really extend the benefits, all they would have to what their media cheerleaders keep telling the GOP they must do in every other context: compromise. If they were to agree to some spending cuts in order to pay for the benefits, it’s likely that even the House GOP would go along with the idea. Yet since they won’t, it is evident that their purpose is not so much to alleviate the travails of the unemployed as it is to outmaneuver the Republicans. As such, any tactical advantage the Democrats may gain may be fleeting.
Conservatives who are urging GOP leaders to stand firm on both the unemployment issue and other “inequality” wedge issues are right. Endless extensions of benefits as well as hiking the federal minimum wage are both economic snake oil. As I wrote last month, such a measure is good for neither the nation’s fiscal health nor, as many serious economists have pointed out, for the long-term prospects of the unemployed since it irresponsibly produces two grim results: it discourages searches for work and transforms what was designed as a stopgap measure into something that is well on its way to becoming a permanent unfunded entitlement. But it is also true that opposing anything that can be portrayed as helping the unemployed is a certain political loser. The more Republicans take the Democrats’ bait and engage in debates about these issues, the more they are merely helping their opponents change the subject from the growing costs and dysfunction of ObamaCare as well as the fact that this administration is a lot better at politics than it is at governing.
But, as even the New York Times’s analysis of this argument noted, although Schumer claimed yesterday on ABC’s This Week that these inequality wedge issues would come back to haunt Republicans in theoretical swing seats in the midterms this coming November, there’s no evidence whatsoever that any of this will have a discernible impact on the results.
More importantly, Obama’s and Reid’s grandstanding on the unemployment issue highlights yet again the major difference between the current Democratic team and Bill Clinton’s far more successful presidency. Clinton was able to beat up Republicans on issues like this almost at will. But at the same time, his keen political instincts and natural governing ability enabled him to cut deals with his GOP opponents to get things done. This is exactly the kind of moment when Clinton would have compromised with his House Republican rivals in order to get something like an unemployment benefits extension and then taken all the credit for it even though the other side would have done as much if not more to make the deal. By contrast, though Obama may score a few points at the Republicans’ expense by refusing to move in their direction, it won’t change a wretched political narrative that is likely to be far more influenced by the more far-reaching impact of the rising costs of health care and insurance over the course of the year.
By acting in this manner, Obama and the Democrats are doing more than failing to achieve their stated objectives; they are also effectively sacrificing the unemployed as expendable pawns in a losing game of political chess. Like the vast population of middle class, younger voters, as well as the elderly all of whom stand to lose as ObamaCare continues its downward spiral, it’s unlikely that the unemployed will thank the Democrats for serving as cannon fodder in their war with the GOP. Taken as a whole, this strategy may turn out to be an even bigger political loser than a Republican decision to stick to conservative principles and to refuse to budge on unemployment or the minimum wage.