Which are the quotes from Democrats Richard Gephardt and John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign against George W. Bush, and which are the ones from Republicans Mitt Romney and Timothy Pawlenty during their current presidential campaigns against Barack Obama?
A. "With the recovery that we're supposed to be in, adding a thousand jobs is pathetic, nothing short of pitiful and pathetic…This president is presiding over an economy that is still not producing jobs."
B. "Today's jobs numbers show how far we are from any of the president's promises being kept."
C. "Today's unemployment numbers show that we are going backwards, and that is the wrong direction for America."
D. "Today's underwhelming job numbers report demonstrates President [X]'s failure to address the tough challenges we face as a nation."
Hard to tell, huh?
Bonus question: Which is the headline over a post from the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2004, trying to put a positive spin on President George W. Bush's job-creation record, and which is the headline over a post earlier this month from the left-wing Center for American Progress Action Fund, trying to put a positive spin on President Obama's job creation record?
A. "The Myth of the Jobless Recovery."
B. "The Myth of a Jobless Recovery."
That's another puzzler.
If there are certain difficult-to-miss parallels in the politics of 2004 and 2011 on the jobs issue, one purpose such a comparison serves is to underscore the perils for any politician hoping to ride a bad unemployment number to the White House. Richard Gephardt, after all, is now a lobbyist, and John Kerry is still a senator from Massachusetts.
Any politician plotting such a line of attack in aiming to unseat an incumbent faces several risks. The first risk is that the joblessness situation will improve between the moment of attack and the moment of the election. That's what happened in the case of George W. Bush. The second risk is that voters will blame the unemployment rate on someone or something other than the president — the business cycle, Congress, the Chinese, Roger Smith, Richard Fuld, you name it. The third risk is that the unemployed will be a minority of those voting in the election, and that those Americans with jobs will be voting on other issues. And the fourth risk is that the politician sounds like what William Safire used to call a gloomy Gus — a whiny pessimist obsessing about bad economic news rather than an optimist with a hopeful, pro-growth message.
The Republicans can and will say that that it's different this time around. They'll say that President Obama's policies of increasing regulation and wanting to increase marginal tax rates destroy jobs, while President Bush's tax cuts were pro-growth.
Another difference Republicans will dwell on is that the jobless rate is hovering around 9% now, as opposed to about 5.5% in 2004. But as blogging economist Mark Perry pointed out, a good deal of the recent job losses have come in the public sector. Based on the household survey (as opposed to the "establishment" survey that counts payrolls), the month of May saw the private sector gain 373,000 jobs while government shed 417,000 jobs.
This shrinking of government employment relative to the private sector is a trend one might think Republican presidential candidates would be cheering rather than bemoaning. But that would require political rhetoric on jobs to be based on principle rather than just search for tactical advantage. There will be opportunities on this front with every monthly employment report between now and November 2012. Whether the candidates will seize them or just echo Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kerry is a question on which the election will turn.