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Our Views: Are you better off? Empty pockets mean votes
State races are following an old strategy: Milk bad economic news to sway voters
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. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

If this year’s political ads sound like you’ve tapped into Nick at Nite reruns of old campaigns, you’re not imagining it. That’s because there’s little new in politics; it only seems that way sometimes when candidates repackage old ideas.

If you’re facing an incumbent, the usual strategy is this: Everything bad that’s happened in the last (two, four, six) years is his or her fault, and everything good is either ignored or someone else’s doing.

Nowhere is that truer than in debating the economy. Any challengers worth their salt will seize on bad economic news and roll it up into a hardy weapon to thrash incumbents. Franklin Roosevelt did it to Herbert Hoover in 1932 with The New Deal, Bill Clinton to George Bush 60 years later with “It’s the economy, stupid.” Lather, rinse, repeat.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked Americans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Enough voters answered “no” that he was able to sweep Jimmy Carter out of the White House.

This year’s governor’s race provides an ironic twist: Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter is dusting off the game plan Reagan used to beat his grandfather a generation ago, asking Georgians “are you better off” than before incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal took office.

And it could work. Despite an economy seemingly on the rebound, Georgia’s unemployment rate remains the nation’s highest at 8.1 percent, though the state has added jobs in recent years (24,700 last month for a total of 4.1 million) and unemployment claims have dropped 27 percent. And the jobless rate has wobbled like a kid coming off the Tilt-a-Whirl at the fair: From 10.4 percent in 2010 at the height of the Great Recession, to 10.1 percent when Deal took office a year later, then down to 6.9 percent last spring before the summer spike.

But if you’re one of those folks out of work, or whose income hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living, Carter’s approach may indeed resonate on Election Day.

Deal points out the economy he inherited was in lousy shape, the same case made at the national level by President Barack Obama. Both are correct, yet how their policies have helped or hurt is both subjective and hard to measure short term.

At last week’s debate in Perry, Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue blasted the Obama administration’s economic record.

“This president sold us a bill of goods,” Perdue said. “We have fewer working today than at any time since Jimmy Carter was president.”

Again, the elder Carter emerges. But Perdue’s point seems to be that whatever we’re doing isn’t working nationwide, though many of the numbers have improved. Meanwhile, Deal says Georgia’s recovery is solid, yet some data indicate otherwise.

So which is it? Is everyone to blame or no one? Or is it only the guys in the other party who don’t know what they’re doing?

This leaves it up to voters to decide if Georgia’s economy is improving or sliding backward and how much the governor’s leadership factors into its success or failure.

Economic gains since the recession’s end have been uneven, no doubt, but such change is inevitable. The global economy is like a force of nature, impossible to control or predict, a great ship riding a turbulent and uncertain sea driven by market changes, consumer habits, technological advances, natural and human disasters and pure fate. Government policy is, at most, a sturdy tugboat trying to nudge it along, though onerous regulations and high taxes can have a harmful effect.

Carter vows to target more help for the middle class, and candidates from both parties claim to be guardians of that vital group. But how do you boost the middle class without also helping those who pay its salaries? Doesn’t a growing economy help everyone?

Yet how to grow it remains a point of contention between the parties. Perdue’s Democratic foe, Michelle Nunn, touched on this by slamming him for his role in outsourcing jobs as a paid consultant. Perdue admits he helped companies outsource tasks to improve their bottom lines, essentially what he was hired to do.

The term “outsourcing” conjures images of corporate fat cats jerking jobs out from under hardworking folks and sending them off to Mexican or Vietnamese sweat shops, where labor is cheap. And it does often work that way, a cold reality of globalization.

But like other economic forces, the movement of jobs across borders is not going to climb back into its time machine and go away. Worldwide connectivity has both pluses and minuses; the ability to move call centers to Bangladesh and assembly lines to Hermosillo falls under both. It’s certainly a blow for anyone losing a job, but a business has to control its labor costs and can’t take care of any of its workers if it fails.

Ideally, making outsourcing less desirable and profitable should be a common goal; already the pendulum is swinging back toward keeping more jobs at home. Perdue proposes growing U.S. manufacturing and exports, and having a trained workforce on this side of the ocean is the first step toward fulfilling that task.

To achieve that, governments at all levels should improve opportunities for job training and retraining for those who have been downsized, and enact policies to help ease the negative impact of economic shifts rather than deny or ignore them.

Voters always will be motivated by pocketbook issues, but should remain well-informed, if not skeptical, about economic promises made from either side. When times are good, is the incumbent the cause or the rooster taking credit for the sunrise? And if they’re bad, will a fresh face make them better or worse?

It’s fair game to ask “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” However, a better question might be: Which candidate can keep that line from being pulled out of mothballs again in four years?

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