Originally published in Official Artur Davis
When a gifted politician stumbles over words, it is often the case that Michael Kinsley’s venerable definition of a gaffe is the reason: namely, that the supposed miscue is nothing but the truth being told unintentionally. By those lights, there is a value in lingering over the last week of presidential gaffes: Barack Obama’s observation that the private sector economy is “doing fine”; and Bill Clinton’s aside that the Bush tax cuts should be extended for the immediate future.
The Obama blunder has already been discarded by the White House, with the campaign team weakly offering that “doing fine” was a poor word choice offered on behalf of a fact—that private sector job growth has been constant for 20 odd months. Clinton has more doggedly pleaded the defense of context killing by Republicans. The maze of explanation goes something like this: the former president opposes and has always opposed the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and if he had his druthers, would repeal them; having said that, repealing the cuts not in isolation but as one element in a comprehensive deficit reduction deal is the best strategic approach for the economy; to buy more bargaining space for a deal, Clinton reverts to a short-term extension of the cuts for one year past their expiration this December. Not exactly a model of clarity, but perhaps a model of how to muddy the record.
The Kinsleyan truth is that both men meant it, but didn’t quite mean to say it. As for Obama, the remark on Friday paints a candid picture of this administration’s sanguine view of its economic record. Whereas most of the country incorrectly but tellingly describes the economy as mired in a recession, the Obama team believes it has woven a success story that compares splendidly with the staggering job losses in early 09. While the country hands Obama an approval rating barely above 40 percent on its economic policies, Team Obama grades itself as the architect of an emergency set of maneuvers that averted a depression. While polls show the country leveling at least some blame on Obama for failing to break the gridlock in Washington, it is the president’s conviction that the recovery would be stronger if only Republicans had not been so determined to block his policies out of calculation and extremism.
In other words, it is a self-drawn portrait that is indeed “fine”, perhaps even verging on quite good; it’s premises are recited as an article of faith by Democratic loyalists on every level. If only the country could see it.
As for the 42nd president, it is worth noting that no high profile Democrat more consistently draws a link between taxes and economic growth. On more than one occasion, Clinton has extolled the virtues of the Simpson Bowles Commission and its blend of entitlement reform, discretionary spending discipline and tax reform as well as outright tax hikes—but he has regularly done so with the caveat that the blueprint ought to be adopted now but shelved until after the recovery has gotten more robust. While the distinction can seem like a timing detail, it is in fairness a sharp point of departure from the 44th president, who sought just last summer to forge a substantial tax hike (and a package of spending cuts) in the teeth of the weakest three months of job growth in the last two years.
Nor, for that matter, has Clinton ever fully embraced the Democratic talking point that the slow growth of the last decade undercuts any linkage between tax cuts and business investment: the Clinton case against the 2001 reductions has always been the centrist argument that cutting taxes during a time of war was off kilter.
So, as much as last week’s verbal follies might seem like the trivia of a light news week, they were actually consequential: a president and a campaign team that won in 2008 on the force of their intuition of the public mood have a self-image perilously at odds with that same mood four years later: Obama’s un-careful moment was a window into that divide. To compound the damage, the case for the Administration’s economic mastery is wounded by the policy critique of a successful Democratic predecessor whose job creation record was exemplary. Congressional Republicans look less isolated and less unreasonable in their stubbornness on tax policy: their supposed hard-line is the preferred bargaining posture of the most popular Democratic surrogate. And it is reasonable to wonder if Clinton thinks Obama is wrong here, what other sotto voce criticisms lurk around the corner?