Democrats suffer from Americans' unwillingness to accept economic reality

By Steven Pearlstein
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 9:30 PM

It's one of the great fallacies in politics: Candidate Jones says X, Y and Z during the campaign. Candidate Jones wins the election. Ergo, the public agrees with X, Y and Z.

Certainly there are times when that may be true, but just as often it is not. After all, if that were always true, then voters should now be ecstatic that President Obama delivered on his campaign promise of health-care reform, while being mad as hell that nothing's been done about global warming.

So maybe that wasn't what voters were really thinking way back in 2008. Maybe voters were simply angry about the lousy economy and looking for a new team to take the country in a new direction. And maybe that's the story this year as well.

As for the details of that new direction, it's not at all clear what voters have in mind. Most voters - particularly the swing voters - aren't as well-informed as they might be on major policy issues. What they do have are experiences and instincts and emotions that politicians play upon in order to win elections. Rarely, however, do the election results add up to a mandate. More often it's nothing more than a temporary license to govern.

Americans, it is said, are suddenly recoiling at the dramatic expansion in the reach and power of a federal government that is "taking over" the economy. Topping this list of alleged voter grievances is a new health-care law that requires every American to buy health insurance, a new consumer protection agency for financial products and the government bailout of the auto industry.

Now ask yourself: Do you think the results of the coming election would be tilting in favor of Democrats if the "individual mandate" had been omitted from health reform, if the consumer protection agency had been dropped from financial regulatory reform and if General Motors had been left to die. Somehow I doubt it.

The dirty little secret is that most Americans don't really know what they think about the issues that so animate the political conversation in Washington, and what they think they know about them is often wrong.

Most Americans still think that the bailouts of the banks, the auto companies and American International Group will wind up costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. In fact, the latest guess is that the government will come out even on the deal, and may even turn a profit.

Many Americans think that the economic stimulus package has been a failure. In fact, the estimates from a wide range of experts say the stimulus has saved or created more than 3 million jobs.

Many Americans believe their federal taxes have gone up in the past two years. In fact, for 90 percent of households, taxes were temporarily cut.

After the headlines of the past few weeks, most Americans probably think government has been able to do little, if anything to stem the tidal wave of foreclosures. In fact, over the past 18 months, two mortgages have been modified to avoid foreclosure for every completed foreclosure.

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