As I've mentioned, there's been a whole thing out in the blogosphere over the question of conservative epistemic closure, or whether the right is constrained by beliefs reinforced by their own informational circles. Again, I don't want to get into the academic debate. But I think it does enter into a question that's been on my mind of late: How will the GOP respond to a strong economic recovery?
Nothing is certain, but indicators have been extremely positive, and it appears that we are increasingly likely to have fairly solid economic growth over the coming six months -- albeit with very slow improvement in jobs. Obviously, Republicans will pound on that jobs data; but Seth Maskin Masket-corr. has shown that unemployment rates do not historically affect midterm results. Perhaps that won't hold this time: maybe the impact is different when unemployment is near 10%, or maybe the right-wing message machine will be able to convince voters that the economy is bad.
But early signs are that people are starting -- slowly, to be sure -- to feel a little better about the economy, and thus a little better about the President. (I'd be curious whether anyone has mapped, say, consumer confidence or consumer spending to Presidential approval and/or voting results.) If this continues, Democrats will certainly have a good narrative for this fall (whether it's accurate or not): the economy had collapsed, we came in and did a bunch of stuff that the Republicans opposed, and the stuff worked.
My question is, what's the Republican opposing narrative going to be? So far, I've seen no sign. Anywhere. Not from party leaders, not from think tanks, not from thought-leading web sites. Instead, I've seen mostly dead silence on the topic of the economy -- by far the most important policy and political issue in the country, no? -- interrupted occasionally by an adamant insistence that the economy is not improving. (There are exceptions, like Larry Kudlow, but they seem to be getting ignored.)
It's a tough problem for the GOP, and to an extent I can understand if the strategy is: well, we're screwed no matter what if people think the economy is improving, so all we can do is insist that it isn't, and hope that it doesn't.
But I wonder whether there's also an epistemic closure problem here -- that is, perhaps the political and message leaders on the right are simply convinced, in their closed information loops, that the economy is not improving (and indeed cannot improve under Democratic policies).
It reminds me of this CBS/Times survey of delegates to the 2008 Republican convention. (RNC delegates aren't necessarily the same as GOP leadership, but it's as close as we're likely to get.) This was in July-August 2008, well into the recession but before the September financial collapse. At the time, according to other polls, three-quarters of Americans believed that the economy was doing badly -- around 50% saying very badly. Yet 57% of RNC delegates thought the economy was in "good" condition. (Democratic delegates were likewise in their own little world, but that world happened to be similar to the one the electorate lived in.)
That wasn't what they were trying to convince the public; that's what they actually believed. And perhaps that was why the GOP convention was almost completely silent on the economy. I wrote at the end of the convention:
I am stunned at how obstinately McCain declined to use this convention to
respond to the overarching accusation made by the previous week's Democratic
convention: that he doesn't "get it" about what American families are going
through.... [H]e couldn't bring himself to actually feel America's pain, or offer any
solutions for it to the undecided voters tuning in -- and today, those voters
are reading about unemployment jumping over six percent, the stock market
tumbling, and the percentage of homeowners in foreclosure or delinquency hitting
yet another new high. McCain's unwillingness to take that seriously is likely,
in my opinion, to quickly convince those voters -- just as happened to Bush
Sr. in 1992 -- to take their chances on the unknown guy who at least seems like
he'll try to do something about it.
Similarly, the right seemed blind to how badly Iraq was going, until it was too late politically. Today, Republican political and message leaders seem blind to the recovery.
It's one thing if they are just acting blind, as a political strategy. The danger for the GOP is if they actually are blind; you simply can't devise a good political strategy if you're starting from a false reality.