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GOP Always Falls Down on the Jobs

September 26, 2003|Larry M. Bartels | Larry M. Bartels directs the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

President Bush appeared in Ohio, Missouri and Indiana this month to tell Middle America that the U.S. economy was now "looking up." But a Labor Department report that employers shed another 93,000 jobs in August intensified public concerns about a "jobless recovery" and persistent unemployment. "We've got a short-term problem," the president acknowledged, but he added that tax cuts and economic growth would spur job creation.

The question that looms large 14 months before the 2004 election is how much, if any, of the current unemployment problem should be blamed on President Bush. The president's supporters point out that the economy was already in a recession when he took office and that employment trends were significantly affected by long-term changes in technology, demographics and foreign trade. Critics respond that Bush, as his father did, has paid too little attention to domestic economic problems and done more for the wealthy than for the jobless.

Citizens wary of contradictory partisan claims would do well to look at the record. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has monitored the ups and downs in unemployment since the 1940s. The figures show that presidents can and do have a significant effect on the job prospects of working Americans.

Simply put, these statistics indicate that high unemployment has been a chronic problem under Republican presidents. From 1947 through 2001, five Republican presidents produced an average unemployment rate of 6.3%, while five Democratic presidents produced an average unemployment rate of 4.8%.

Regardless of the specific economic conditions and challenges facing each president, average unemployment rates have been more than 30% higher under Republicans than under Democrats. Given the current size of the civilian labor force, that difference suggests that there would have been more than 2 million more jobs under President Gore than there are now under President Bush.

What about the argument that Bush inherited an economic downturn? The comparisons presented here attribute the 2001 surge in unemployment (from 4.0% to 4.7%) to Bill Clinton and similarly assume that each president's policies took effect one year after his inauguration. However, significant partisan differences appear in the data regardless of whether we assume that presidents' policies take effect in the year they assume office, the next year or even two years later.

Are those differences mere coincidence? Perhaps -- but they have persisted with striking consistency through periods of war and peace, presidential ascendancy and scandal, and economic expansion and retrenchment. Allowing for nonpolitical employment trends doesn't make the differences go away; nor does focusing on changes in unemployment from the level prevailing at the beginning of each president's term; nor does limiting the comparison to the last 15 or 20 years.

Why would Republican presidents routinely produce more unemployment than their Democratic counterparts? One answer has to do with the two parties' distinctive supporting coalitions. The Republican Party appeals disproportionately to people with high incomes, while the Democratic Party draws support from those with modest incomes. For example, in the 2002 National Election Study survey, about 25% of Republican Party identifiers had family incomes above $85,000 and a similar proportion had family incomes below $35,000; but fewer than 15% of Democratic identifiers had family incomes above $85,000, and more than 40% had family incomes below $35,000.

Not surprisingly, then, the parties have pursued different economic policies. Democratic presidents have aimed to stimulate the economy and boost employment, benefiting people of modest means. By comparison, Republicans have concentrated on reducing inflation and, in President Bush's case, cutting taxes, which has benefited the wealthy more than the middle and lower classes, while doing little to create jobs.

The current unemployment rate, 6.1%, corresponds almost exactly with the average unemployment rate under the five previous Republican presidents. What's more, the increase in unemployment from 2001 to the present, 1.4%, corresponds almost exactly with the historical difference in average unemployment rates between Republican and Democratic presidents.

Both of these comparisons underline the fact that the current employment situation is neither unusual nor short-term. Rather, it is a predictable consequence of priorities and policies that have characterized Republican administrations throughout the last half-century.

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