Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lessons of 1982? Not So Much

Steve Benen makes two claims this morning about 1982 and 2010, and I don't think either of them stands up to close examination.

The first is the Republicans and Ronald Reagan were successful in 1982 in blaming the recession on Jimmy Carter: he approvingly quotes a reader who says that the GOP "retained their 54 Senate seats and limited House losses to 27 seats." Why? Because, Benin says,
Among other things, Reagan and his allies kept reminding people of why they didn't like Carter/Mondale..."Carter Recession" was on the lips of every Republican in D.C. in the early 1980s.
I'm not sure exactly how true it is that Republicans campaigned against Carter in 1982 -- their campaign slogan was "stay the course," not "punish Carter." But at any rate, the more important thing here is that whatever Reagan and his party were doing in 1982, it didn't work. Twenty-seven House seats is a big loss in general, but it's especially big when starting from only 192 seats to begin with. Republicans have never since had fewer seats. And it's not surprising that they got clobbered in House (and gubernatorial, and state legislative) elections, since Ronald Reagan was terribly unpopular in 1982. Reagan's approval rating spiked up after he was shot in spring 1981, but then started falling; by September, he was right about where Obama is now. But then the recession started hitting harder, and Reagan's approval ratings fell further. He spent all of 1982 under 50% approval and reached bottom in January 1983 with 35% approval.

Reagan's approval ratings fell when the economy tanked, and recovered when the economy recovered. Republicans did badly in the 1982 midterms. End of story.

The other claim Benen makes is that Democrats have been cowed into ignoring George W. Bush's legacy. I'm not going to do a lot of work disproving it, but I think it's just flat wrong. The White House doesn't blame everything, all the time, on W., and I think that's a good strategy -- everyone loves Harry Truman. But Congressional Democrats, liberal commentators, and the rest have been quick to blame Bush for everything from the economy to Afghanistan...just try watching C-SPAN for a couple of hours and you'll hear the former president's name often enough.

(UPDATED January 23, 2010 -- just noticed (and fixed) an awful typo here; it originally said that Reagan was shot in spring 1982, when in fact it was spring 1981.  Typo corrected, so the narrative of Reagan's falling approval ratings makes sense now).

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