Fred Barnes' very bad advice

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Time's Joe Klein does a commendable job pointing out some of the flaws in Fred Barnes' Wall Street Journal column yesterday. Alas, Barnes' foolishness proved too much for one person to catalogue, so some loose ends remain.

Barnes central premise is that President Obama wants, or should want, Republicans to gain control of Congress, because that will make it easier to cut spending and thus waltz to re-election.

That's silly because, as Klein notes, "The Republicans have shown no--I mean, zero--interest in cutting the budget in the past. They didn't do it under Reagan; they didn't do it under Bush Junior. Quite the opposite, they exploded the budget deficit with wars and tax cuts." Klein also points out that Barnes' focus on domestic discretionary spending is "chump change" in the context of what Barnes describes as a "debt crisis."

But there's another fundamental flaw with Barnes' argument: His repeated suggestion that trimming domestic spending would pave the way for Obama's reelection:

If Mr. Obama wants to avert a fiscal crisis and win re-election in 2012, he needs House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be removed from her powerful post. A GOP takeover may be the only way.

Over the past 50 years, it should be no surprise which president has the best record for holding down discretionary spending. It was President Reagan. But who was second best? President Clinton, a Democrat. His record of frugality was better than Presidents Nixon, Ford and both Bushes. Mr. Clinton couldn't have done it if Republicans hadn't won the House and Senate in the 1994 election. They insisted on substantial cuts, he went along and then whistled his way to an easy re-election in 1996.


Mr. Obama's re-election to a second term is heavily dependent on his ability to deal effectively with the fiscal mess.

Incredibly, Barnes never once makes any mention of the economy's effect on Obama's reelection prospects, or the effect it had on Clinton's in 1996. Didn't mention unemployment, either. In Barnes' telling, the nation's fiscal condition is key to a president's re-election and cutting spending is the way to win. But in actual electoral history, voters' finances are more important than the government's finances. Clinton's 1996 victory, for example, came after the unemployment rate, which ranged from 6.5 to 7.3 percent for his first year in office, had fallen to the mid-5s for two full years.

Having ignored the fact that voters tend to vote based on their financial condition, not the government's, Barnes apparently felt free to ignore the effect his proposed spending cuts would have on the economy. Just completely ignored it. (Number of mentions of the words "jobs," "employment," "unemployment" in Barnes column: 0.) Given the tendency of economists to argue that cutting government spending is not exactly the best way to kick-start the economy, Barnes' advice would seem to make for bad policy as well as bad politics.

(One last problem with Barnes' contention that a GOP takeover of Congress would be good for Obama: Republicans are already clamoring for investigations of complete non-scandals, and the last time we had a Republican Congress and a Democrat in the White House, the GOP handed out subpoenas like they were lollipops, even going so far as to investigate the White House cat. Arguing that a GOP congress would be good for Obama without noting the likelihood of frivolous, partisan investigations is like arguing that BP has been good for the Gulf of Mexico without noting all that oil in the water.)

UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan drops some science on Barnes.

Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine
Fred Barnes, Joe Klein
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