In the aftermath of Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama’s post-midterm news conferences on Wednesday, I kept thinking that Obama has become the Tampa Bay Rays of presidents, and this is a serious problem.
Let me explain. As a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, I have come to loathe the Rays. As Jonah Keri chronicled in his excellent “The Extra 2%,” a decade ago the Rays management, led by general manager Andrew Friedman, inherited a historically bad expansion franchise and transformed it into a perennial World Series contender from 2008 to 2014. They did this with good scouting, better trading, advanced sabermetrics, and very little money.
Here’s the thing about the Rays, though. The idea behind baseball franchises putting good teams on the field is that this should boost attendance. Implicitly, we all assume that more fans will come to watch their team when their team is more likely to win. This creates a virtuous circle in which more fans pay for tickets, which gives the team more money to spend on players, which can lead to a better team, and so forth.
Except this is not what happened with the Rays. For a variety of reasons, including a God-awful stadium, the Rays have had woeful attendance for years despite putting a very good team on the field. As a result, the Rays have been unable to increase their payroll too much; instead, they’ve had to continue to trade All-Star players for prospects. This offseason, the Rays brain trust, GM Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, both left for wealthier franchises.
This parable of the Rays is a problem for baseball more generally. If the link between having a good baseball on the field and attracting larger crowds is severed, then the incentive to develop a good team can be blunted.
The same is true of politics. The intuitive assumption in political science is that political parties have an incentive to produce quality policies, in order to increase their chances of reelection.
And here we get to Obama and the midterms. As he noted last month, his policies were on the ballot this week, even if he wasn’t. At his news conference on Wednesday, he said the following:
This country has made real progress since the crisis six years ago. The fact is, more Americans are working. Unemployment has come down. More Americans have health insurance. Manufacturing has grown. Our deficits have shrunk. Our dependence on foreign oil is down, as are gas prices. Our graduation rates are up. Our businesses aren’t just creating jobs at the fastest pace since the 1990s. Our economy is outpacing most of the world.
Here’s the thing about that paragraph: Obama might be slanting the facts in a self-serving manner, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s basically right. Critics like Paul Krugman and Noam Scheiber have recently acknowledged that, given the hand they were dealt, the Obama administration did a pretty good job of shepherding the country through the Great Recession. Indeed, as even the Washington Examiner’s Joseph Lawler points out:
The unemployment rate has fallen by nearly three percentage points and the U.S. economy has added 4.6 million jobs since President Obama won re-election in November 2012, but voters in the midterm elections gave him no credit for the improvement….
[O]nly 45 percent of voters listed the economy as the top problem facing the country, down from nearly 60 percent in 2012 and 63 percent in 2010. Seven in 10 said the economy was in bad shape, but that number also declined from previous elections.
So, in other words, despite Obama’s belief that good policy led to good results, voters haven’t made that basic connection.
Compare and contrast that disconnect with Matthew Yglesias’s paean to Mitch McConnell in Vox as D.C.’s master political strategist of the past decade. Why has McConnell succeeded politically?
To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked. Six years into the affair, we now take it for granted that nothing will pass on a bipartisan basis, noappointment will go through smoothly, and everything the administration tries to get done will take the form of a controversial use of executive power.
It’s been ugly. But in most voters’ mind, the ugliness has attached to Obama and, by extension, Democrats. It was a very counterintuitive strategy, but it was well-grounded in the best political science available. And it worked.
Similarly, one can point to GOP governors who implemented really radical policy agendas, after which the state found out that they did not work as advertised, and nevertheless managed to get themselves reelected in 2014.
Now I’m simplifying a hell of a lot in this analysis. I’m omitting Obama’s foreign policy foul-ups, and the evidence of government dysfunction ranging from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Secret Service to the Ebola response that should all be laid at Obama’s doorstep. And I’m also minimizing the possibility that the GOP’s ideology-driven approach to governance might yield better results (though to be fair, new National Review executive editor Reihan Salam is with me on that last point). And there is an art as well as a science to politics, and one can argue that the Democratic Party was remarkably inartful this election cycle.
None of this obviates the erosion of a pretty basic assumption in American politics: implementing successful policies — like arresting a slide into Depression or expanding health-care coverage — does not necessarily translate into successful political outcomes. And if politicians find that they can be rewarded for either bad policies or sheer obstinacy, that’s what they will give the voters.
Which is not good for the country.