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Romney is winning the payroll tax cut fight, cont’d

By Ezra Klein,

Political scientist Steve Teles e-mails some words of caution about the studies I cite in this morning’s Wonkbook:

Notice that the studies you cite are from a decade ago. They are reporting on time-bound phenomenon. That is, the period under study was one of relatively low partisan polarization. It was also one with pretty pervasive cooperation between the parties in Congress. And most citizens had little or no understanding of who ran Congress and what they did. Under such conditions, citizens tended to assume that the economy was a sort of management matter, and the president was in charge. We don’t know whether that same relationship holds when we have pervasive polarization and a much higher visibility Congress ...
The best parallel is to the economic models people used leading up to the financial crisis. They worked great, and then suddenly something weird happened and all the historical relationships (based on a short time period) got screwed up. You always have to ask this question about social science theories — are they just institutionally generated regularities, and so when the institutions change, so do the regularities.

That’s all very true. But I want to see some evidence that voters are behaving differently before I toss these models into the trash heap. And so far, I’ve seen the opposite.

This summer, Republicans took America to the brink of a credit default. Polls showed the Democrats had the more popular position, in that they wanted a deficit-reduction plan that included taxes on the wealthy, and that they were seen as more willing to compromise. But Republican intransigence drove President Obama’s approval ratings into the 30s. Fine, you might say. But Republicans were unpopular, too. That’s accurate, but look at the polls testing Obama and Romney: the debt-ceiling debate marked the first time that Romney beat Obama in a head-to-head match-up.

Real Clear Politics

Another way to put the point from this morning’s Wonkbook is this: Many Democrats believe that Republicans are purposefully sabotaging the economic recovery in order to defeat Obama in 2012. Behind that belief is a model of American politics in which Obama’s electoral fortunes depends on the speed of the recovery, and Republicans are helped when the recovery is hurt.

For the record, I don’t believe that Republicans are purposefully trying to sabotage the recovery. But if you were trying to harm the recovery, the obvious place to start would be by letting the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance expire. So the question then is why the Republican resistance to the payroll tax cut — whatever its motivation — doesn’t fit the “hurt the economy to hurt Obama model.”

As I understand it, the thinking is that the payroll tax cut is a special issue in which the tactical incoherence of the Republican Party is leading to the media and the voters blaming Republicans with unusual clarity. That’s right, I think, and if the election were a week from now, the issue would clearly favor the Democrats. But the election is a year from now, and if the economy isn’t in good shape, it’s going to be very difficult to get voters to connect it to a payroll tax cut dispute from 2011.

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