Good News for Incumbents

May 19, 2010 9:27am

You wouldn’t know it from the morning papers, but there was some good news for incumbents yesterday.

It was too late for Arlen Specter, too slight to rain on Rand Paul’s parade and too tentative to assess its full potential. But it was there: For the first time in six years, more people said the economy was improving than said it was getting worse.

The margin is slight: Thirty-three percent in the latest ABC News Consumer Comfort survey said the economy’s getting better, while 29 percent said it’s still worsening. The rest said it’s holding steady, and for nearly everyone, steady is dreadful; 88 percent say it’s in bad shape overall.

Nonetheless that 88 percent is its fewest, however slightly, since October 2008. And the slight advantage in optimistic expectations over pessimistic ones is a first since January 2004.

What this has to do with politics is potentially profound; absent an unpopular war there’s no more powerful political force than economic discontent. It’s far and away the prime fuel for the anti-incumbent fires now raging. When economically stressed Americans wonder who’s looking out for them, it becomes easy to paint incumbents as looking out only for themselves (Specter’s party switch was Joe Sestak’s greatest gift) and to paint the system more broadly as a bloated and failed one (the message of Paul and his Tea Party movement).

The Tea Party has an appeal that’s rooted in ideological as well as economic views. As our last ABC/Post poll on the movement showed, its support draws overwhelmingly from conservatives, Republicans and critics of Barack Obama’s policies. That positions the movement perfectly to stick a thumb in the institutional Republican Party’s eye, as Paul did so deftly in winning the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky yesterday.

But while primaries can be won in the activist wings, general elections are more apt to be decided in the political center. The question for the Tea Party, and for anti-government, anti-incumbent discontent in general, is how it plays in the midfield. And that’s where ideology counts less – and economic discontent means more.

There’s plenty left to chew on. Unemployment’s 9.9 percent, long-term joblessness is off the charts and our index of current consumer sentiment is still 31 points below its 25-year average. (Current sentiment tends to lag recoveries; economic expectations, less so.) The recession’s been so deep for so long, with so much damage to so many, that it’s not going to be a simple matter for the public to forgive and forget.

Fewer than six months before the 2010 election, the time for a turnaround to benefit incumbents is short, but also their last, best hope. What counts is not just when recovery occurs, but how robust it is – how quickly it makes itself felt in people’s lives. The 1983 recovery was sharp; the one from 1992 on, laggardly. The pace this time will tell much – for the economy and for our politics alike.

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