Depending on which Republicans you ask, we’re either living in the best of times, or the worst of times.
For the national GOP, any notion of an economic recovery is a figment of Democrats’ imaginations. When a third straight month of solid job numbers came in last week, officials responded with caution and contempt. They dashed out releases and tweets minimizing the size of the gains, and pushing back against the idea there’s any recovery at all.
RNC Chairman Reince Preibus immediately put out a statement calling the news “yet another reminder that far too many Americans are out of work, and the situation is clearly not improving.” Accompanying press releases referred to the “recovery” in dubious quotation marks.
On the trail, Mitt Romney, whose campaign has hinged on an economic message, took a similar tack. “This is a president who thinks America is doing better,” Romney told a crowd in Alabama. “He should go out and talk to the 24 million Americans who are out of work or stopped looking for work or are unemployed.”
But when you ask Republican governors how things are going, especially in swing states, the economic picture starts to brighten considerably — even before the last three months of unexpectedly positive news.
“We’re alive again!” Ohio’s John Kasich boasted in his annual State of the State address in January. “We’re out of the ditch. We’re growing. It’s happening in our state. It’s not me. It’s all of us and the people of this state. I’m just thrilled to be part of it.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott used his annual address the same month to brag about how his state had “netted more than 120,000 total jobs in the first 11 months of 2011,” even as unemployment remained among the highest in the nation.
“When I said, ‘Let’s get to work,’ it wasn’t just a slogan,” he said. “Florida got to work, and each Floridian deserves the credit!”
Even in Nevada, which holds the worst unemployment rate in the nation after a devastating housing collapse, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is finding reasons to be cheerful.
“Nevada is on the move again!” he told business leaders in December. “We are seeing signs, some large, some small, of economic improvement.”
Just as relativity theory only works for large objects and quantum theory only works for small ones, Republicans are currently producing two incompatible visions of the economy depending on the national vs. state outlook. In this case, it’s not hard to figure out what’s causing the equation to break down. The Republican governors elected in 2009 and 2010 promised to get residents back to work. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell’s campaign slogan was “Bob’s For Jobs.” Rick Scott pledged to create 700,000 jobs in seven years. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder described his 2010 message as “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Now that they’re in office, they’re eager to showcase any and all improvements as proof that their policies are working.
“I think even Democrats would have to give folks like John Kasich and Rick Scott and Rick Snyder credit for the job creation numbers they’re posting, the unemployment rates going down in their states,” Mike Schrimpf, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, told TPM.
If the numbers keep ticking up, that’s good news for the governors’ re-election campaigns. Unfortunately, they happen to govern the very same battleground states where Republicans working on the 2012 presidential race are trying to convince Americans that the economy is a disaster under President Obama.
“The irony is that at the same time they’re claiming, ‘We have a lot more job creation here,’ they’re adding, ‘But, by the way, vote for a Republican for president,” said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “It becomes a tug of war over who gets the credit, the president and the national recovery or the governors.”
National strategists are working on their own grand unifying theory to bridge the gap between the GOP’s national and state-level messaging. The narrative goes something like this: In 2009, President Obama said his $787 billion stimulus would keep unemployment below 8 percent, and it’s been above that for 37 months (yes, the extent of the recession was not yet known at the time, but bear with us). The economy would have remained stagnant for who knows how long, but in 2010, Republicans elected a bunch of conservative governors who cut taxes and spending and ushered in a new era of business growth in their states that led America into its current recovery.
“The interesting thing the Obama campaign does is always talk about their job creation numbers as if he took office in about March of 2010,” Schrimpf said. “In the states with Republican governors, they took office in 2011 and have seen consistent job growth since then.”
The RNC, while much less bullish on the extent of the recovery in their press releases, is pushing a similar line. Sure, jobs are returning, but in Republican-controlled states.
“Republican governors across the country have been implementing pro-growth policies that have helped their state’s economy not because of but in spite of Obama’s policies,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told TPM. “Our goal as the national Republican Party is to ensure these governors have a Republican in the White House to continue their pro-growth agendas to turn our economy around.”
But is it really a GOP governor-led recovery? Let’s go to the chart.
Here we imagine America as two nations, one encompassing all states led by a Republican governor, one with all states led by a Democratic governor. Since the states each party controlled changed radically after the 2010 elections, the two populations abruptly shift and cross over in early 2011. Republican-led America has seen its unemployment rate dip slightly faster in the last couple of months, but in general you can see the two lines move pretty closely in concert with the national trend.
This pattern holds even though there’s a wide disparity as to how hard individual states were hit by the recession: States like California and Nevada that were hurt badly by the housing collapse still have double-digit unemployment, while Virginia, which benefits from its proximity to Washington, D.C.’s federal dollars, has a 5.8 percent unemployment rate. North Dakota, an oil state enjoying an industry-wide boom, has an absurdly low 3.2 percent unemployment rate. Yet the general pattern of job growth is pretty universal at the moment. In January, the most recent state-level jobs report available, some 45 states saw their unemployment rate go down, versus only one (New York) that saw it increase.
The RGA argues that the rate of growth is still slightly better in Republican states: an addition of one job per every 179 state residents over the last year, versus one job per every 227 state residents in Democratic-led states. Democrats say it’s statistical noise and that governors are taking credit for growth the White House set the stage for by passing the stimulus and rescuing the auto industry, which they claim saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in Michigan and Ohio. Still, the Democratic Governors Association is all too happy to accept Republican governors’ premise that there’s a jobs boom under way.
“Apparently Republican governors didn’t get the memo from Mitt Romney to ignore the economic recovery that’s under way thanks to President Obama’s leadership,” DGA spokeswoman Kate Hansen said. “We agree with the Republican governors — the economy is getting better, and we’ve now seen 24 months of private-sector job growth across the country. If Republican governors would focus more on job creation and expanding opportunity instead of hard-right sideshows like attacking workers’ rights, suppressing voter turnout and mandatory ultrasounds, perhaps their states would be able to close the gap with Democratic-led states, which are creating 21st century jobs at a higher rate and making the investments a modern economy needs to promote continued growth.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.