Brightening Economy Is Bad for GOP Presidential Hopefuls

For a Republican candidate (pick any; for the sake of this argument it doesn’t really matter) to win the White House this fall, one of two things must happen, and neither of them are good for the GOP or the nation.

First, the prime conservative argument against re-electing President Barack Obama is that he’s responsible for the lack of jobs and high unemployment. For conservatives to make that argument stick, though, they’ll have to bet against prosperity.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) previewed the conservative argument in a critique of the White House budget proposals. “The president offered a collection of rehashes, gimmicks, and tax increases that will make our economy worse,” Boehner said.

But as of late, the economy seems to be turning around, not getting worse. Indeed, that argument hit a snag last week, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the January unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, down from 8.5 percent in December and 9.1 percent back in August.

The January figure continues a trend of good news. The December figure was surprisingly revised upward to 203,000 new jobs from the previously reported 200,000, and November’s figure was revised upward to 157,000 from 100,000. Altogether, it’s a promising sign that things are beginning to look up. Or, as The New York Times reported, "the recovery seems finally to be reaching American workers."

If—and it’s a huge “if”—the job creation pace continues as it has in recent months, then the economic argument against President Obama loses its luster. Regardless, few economists predict the unemployment rate will return to the double-digit figure of late 2009, and many are crossing their fingers that it might fall a few tenths of a percentage lower. That’s good news for the nation, but not so cheery for a Republican presidential nominee.

That brings us to the second line of attack the forthcoming GOP nominee is likely to fall back on to win. For lack of a better name, let’s call it a return to divisive culture wars. This gambit is an attempt to rally hard-right conservative voters by attacking immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, and women’s health rights.

Once again, the conservative approach is drilling into a dry well.

Despite the evidence that suggests most Americans support immigration, the leading Republican presidential hopefuls have taken a hard, unwelcoming approach to the issue. In particular, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has reversed his erstwhile tacit support of immigration reform to court conservative presidential primary voters with a tougher stand. His flip-flop on the issue prompted Ann Garcia and Philip E. Wolgin, who track immigration issues for the Center for American Progress, to compare Romney’s mutable position to that of failed GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) of Arizona.

“Ultimately, Mitt has nothing to gain and everything to lose with his anti-immigrant strategy,” Garcia and Wolgin wrote. “Just ask Sen. McCain.”

And as my colleague Ruy Teixeira noted recently, young people are especially immigrant friendly, suggesting that conservatives ”are on the wrong side of Latino public opinion.”

Similarly, gay marriage isn’t a cutting-edge issue with growing numbers of voters. A series of polls conducted last year demonstrated that a majority of Americans support full marriage equality for same-sex couples, a marked reversal from years prior that showed clear majorities in opposition.

Yet GOP hopeful Rick Santorum met earlier this week with opponents of a new law in Washington State that legalized same-sex marriage and promised to stand with them. “I told them to keep up this fight, that this is an important issue for our families,” Santorum said of his meeting with more than 100 conservative pastors and other so-called “values voters” on Monday in Olympia, Washington.

On women’s health, it’s true that President Obama may have inadvertently given his future opponent an opening with the decision to require employers to offer contraceptive care in health insurance policies. This drew the ire of Catholic and other religious leaders who argued that it would require them to pay for something they’re morally opposed to providing. Predictably, the GOP candidates seized on the issue and criticized President Obama as “anti-religion.”

But is this really an issue with legs long enough to run to victory? I don’t think so. According to a poll this month by Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans (55 percent) agree that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.” Roughly 6 in 10 Catholics polled (58 percent) agreed with that statement.

The firestorm of criticism pushed the administration late last week to offer a compromise that calls for insurance companies to provide contraceptives to women who work for employers unwilling to provide the benefit. “Some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but it shouldn’t be,” the president said in offering the compromise.

Of course they do. What else do they have to offer voters?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.