So the jobs numbers are just out, and though they’re somewhat under expectations—157,000 new jobs as opposed to the 190,000 forecast—once again Donald Trump will have something to spin positively, as the unemployment rate dropped a tick from the previous month to 3.9 percent.
It’s fine. Any president would boast about this unemployment rate, and there’s no doubt it’s these kinds of economic numbers that are keeping his approval rating north of 40 percent.
But every time I see a jobs report and see Trump tweet about greatest this and best that, I can’t help but think about the longer economic story of this country, a story that—surprise, surprise—the Democrats have failed to tell Americans, and for which they pay some kind of price in every election.
If you’re a typical person, even if you’re pretty well-informed, you probably believe that the Republicans are the party of big business and private enterprise. You probably believe on some level all the things the Republicans say about the free market—for example, that regulations are a job-killer. Mind you, you may be a liberal and still support regulations for other reasons, including that they save lives in the workplace or are good for the environment. But I bet some part of you still believes that the Republicans are the party that’s been better for business. After all, they say it all the time, and the Democrats never, ever say otherwise.
Well, like most other things Republicans say these days, it’s not true. In fact, it’s not even remotely close to true.
The economy does better under Democratic presidents. Indeed, it does a lot better—so much better that economists are almost kind of confused by it. The most authoritative recent study of which I’m aware was done in 2016 by Princeton economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson. Here’s a page with a link to the full 31-page .pdf for those of you who like to wonk out on such matters. For the rest of you, here’s the first sentence: “The U.S. economy has performed better when the president of the United States is a Democrat rather than a Republican, almost regardless of how one measures performance.”
Now, the report quickly notes that this isn’t just because Democrats are smarter economic managers. The main reason they cite, in fact, is “oil shocks.” That is, the big, unexpected oil controversies, like the 1973 OPEC embargo, just so happen to have taken place under GOP presidents. So Republican presidents had bad luck.
Well, fine. At the same time, three points. First, that particular embargo was imposed in response to a Nixon administration policy: its support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Now, any American administration of either party would have done that. But the embargo was announced on Oct. 17. In response, two days later, Nixon authorized $2 billion in additional military aid to Israel. In other words, maybe that particular Republican administration made that particular oil shock worse than it might have been.
Second, while the Democratic advantage surely involves some luck, it can’t be all luck, over the course of 67 years (Blinder and Watson’s time frame). And even if it was, in political terms, so what? The numbers are the numbers. You think if they were reversed, the Republicans would have forgotten to mention that the economy has been in recession four times as often under Democratic administrations as under Republican ones? The truth, according Blinder and Watson, is that the economy has been in recession 28 percent of the time under GOP presidents and 7 percent of the time under Democrats.
And third, the story is even broader. What about job creation? Is that any closer? No. These numbers come to us from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, a widely respected and cited source on economic facts and figures.
The period from 1961 up through 2017 covers 56 years. As it happens, the parties split presidential control during that time exactly evenly, 28 years each. In the Republicans’ 28 years, the non-farm job rolls added 31.5 million workers. In the Democrats’ years? Try 61.2 million. Essentially twice as many.
Now I’ve known these kinds of numbers for a long time, because I occasionally read things like reports of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. And I spent years wondering: Why don’t Democrats ever mention this? I’m no expert on these things, but “we’ve been better for the economy over the last 60 years, and here are the numbers that prove it” seems like a pretty good line to me. And even if it’s exaggeration because “the economy” is such a complex thing, it is by political standards very admissible exaggeration.
Finally—one did! Remember Bill Clinton’s speech at the convention in Charlotte in 2012? He talked about it. He did a beautiful job of connecting these results to Democrats’ values, and for my money it’s the single best convention speech of the postwar era. “It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty, and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure, and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us,” he said.
But that was six years ago, and I’ve hardly heard a Democrat talk that way since. If his wife did in 2016, she sure didn’t emphasize it.
Why? Not to pick on her, but why don’t Democrats say this, and say it and say it and say it? If they had for the last six years, the context in which people receive positive numbers under Trump would be completely different. Now, it’s: Well, the private sector is doing well under a Republican, things are normal. In my alternate universe, it would be: Well, that’s nice, but Republicans still have a lot of catching up to do.
There’s an impoverishment of imagination right now on the Democratic and progressive side that is close to maddening. This isn’t just politicians. It’s donors and insiders and the professional message people who are paid ridiculous retainers to think of these things. The millions of Americans who are counting on the Democrats to save this country from the abyss deserve much better.