Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Fine Thread of Conscience and the Election of 2012

Two possible futures stand before us, but probably not the way you think. John McCain’s victory in November is a virtual certainty. This is not because of the closing crisis among the Democrats over the distribution of delegates, superdelegates, and superduperdelegates (no joke—there is a subsidiary category of superdelegates that can appoint additional crews of superdelegates, the epitome of elitism). The crisis may have helped Republican interests by a fractional margin, but it was not necessary. By November 4, it will seem as though there never had been a crisis. Nor will it make any difference to Democrat interests to include the word “Clinton” on Obama-for-President bumper stickers.

On November 4, voters will choose between two major-party candidates and a sprinkling of third-party options. Both Obama and McCain will fall short of 50% of the popular vote, but McCain will garner a clear majority of electoral votes and win the election. My current, rough estimate of the share of the popular vote is 47% for McCain to 45% for Obama, based on data from the first quarter of the current year. (Liberals may nevertheless rejoice at the higher, 5.5% unemployment figure released yesterday, as that will help thin McCain’s margin of victory.)

John McCain will win in both possible futures. What is the difference then? It has nothing to do with Democrat chances in 2008. There are none. Instead, it is entirely a question of how McCain will prepare to manage economic policy. Yes, we know that McCain once described himself as something less than an economic journeyman, but that is irrelevant. In fact, Obama and Clinton alike fall short of McCain’s knowledge of the economy, but they naturally would never admit it. The Democrats’ punish-the-rich predilections make them economic dunces by comparison. Still, it does not matter. Managing economic policy through 2012 will be no easy feat. That year is unusual.

The first possible future is this: John McCain will win the presidency, serve four years, and then inaugurate a dozen years of Democrat Party control of the White House. This is the more likely path that our country will take, given the sheer complexity of how to manage the economy over the next four years. McCain could hire a Ph.D. in economics to run the Department of Labor or Commerce, but even so, it would not be enough to secure success on this front during this period.

The second possible future is this: John McCain will win the presidency, serve four years, and then inaugurate a dozen years of Republican control of the White House. This scenario is far less likely than the first. In fact, given the special circumstances governing the economy over the next four years, such an outcome will be virtually unprecedented in American history. That is how difficult the feat is.

Part of me hopes that the Democrats defy the odds and take the White House this year. Dr. Ray Fair of Yale University has a popular equation of presidential prospects, which currently predicts precisely this. Dr. Fair will update his data as the economic numbers progress through the coming months, and I expect that we will see McCain’s prospects gradually improve during that time in his equation. Until then, let me most humbly and (almost) regretfully submit that his result is incorrect for the moment. (Dr. Fair uses some speculative projections, which my model does not require.) Mind you, I do not welcome a Democrat victory. Democrats will raise taxes, enlarge the Nanny-State, and pursue international policy that only threatens our country’s security. Yes, there would be a distinct advantage in a Democrat victory in November, in that it would guarantee a dozen years of Republican control to follow. But how much should we be willing to pay to avoid an extended period of Democrat governance? Conversely, a Republican victory in November will all but guarantee the opposite, that the period from 2013 to 2025 will be a replay of the Clinton years, only 50% longer.

What is the price of true conservatism? Must we endure another episode of the Carter years in order to restore Reaganesque conservative leadership to the Republican platform? (Spookily, both Iran and high oil prices are in play once again.) Is it enough for us that our man McCain will drive the ship for four years? Are we satisfied that McCain’s Teddy Roosevelt progressivism (a liberal ideology, not a conservative one) is okay for now?

We must start addressing the challenge of 2012 today. If we wait to see what McCain will do on his own, we will hand 2012 to the Democrats, for better or for worse (well actually, for worse).

Some of you may believe that having a Republican in the White House increases the odds of victory in an election, given the advantages of incumbency. In fact, it is generally the opposite. Incumbency does not help in presidential elections. If the economy stays strong and there are no scandals, then yes, a Republican White House will stay Republican. Otherwise, it will turn Democrat. In fact, having a Republican in the White House for the coming four years will (all but) ensure the demise of the Republican Party for the next dozen years. The reason for this is the year 2012 itself.

We live in an age of very predictable economic growth cycles. That is, a cyclical contraction is predictable every 42 quarters (10.5 years). External shocks to the economy can also occur to add more points of negative growth during a growth cycle, as happened dramatically in the mid-1970s due to the OPEC oil embargo, but even with such shocks, the economy repeatedly hits a point of major weakness every 42 quarters, and predictably heads downward sharply before it recovers. The last time this occurred was in 2001. No, the attack on the World Trade Center did not cause that contraction (it was not technically a recession; the negative-growth quarters were not adjacent to one another). Neither did Bill Clinton (sorry). It was natural and predictable.

This pattern of natural contraction points is readily visible in real-GDP historical data. Quarterly data since 1947 are available ( Those data show that the 1949 recession (1st quarter) was on time. The 1959 contraction (3rd quarter) was also on time, but an early recession (4th quarter 1957) softened the cyclical contraction that followed, so it only lasted one quarter. (When an early contraction occurs, it softens any cyclical contraction that closely follows, if there is one.) The 1970, 1980, and 1991 recessions (1st, 3rd, and 1st quarters, respectively) each occurred one quarter early. The 2001 contraction (3rd quarter) was exactly on time, but two prior contractions softened it, resulting in only one quarter of negative growth at that particular point.

These contraction points have followed a regular cycle since about 1873, prior to which they are displaced by about four years, probably due to the Reconstruction era that followed the US Civil War. Reliable quarterly data are not available prior to 1947, but annual data support precisely the same pattern. Thus, 1938 was on time, 1928 (prior to the Great Depression) was evidently mild due to the 1927 slowdown, 1917 was on time, and a somewhat early recession in 1904 softened the impact on 1906. Going further back, 1896 was on time, 1885 was on time (although 1884 was also a recession year), and 1875 was on time.

Now, why am I proposing that it will be so difficult to manage the economy through 2012? Why should anyone believe that the next four years will be any more difficult to manage than the last four? And how does this affect the presidency? For this last question, review Dr. Fair’s website. His explanation of the impact of economic news on presidential elections will suffice. Just know that the president gets the credit or the blame for the economy, deserved or not. For the question of why it will be so difficult, consider the natural growth cycles and contraction points. The next contraction point is in the first quarter of 2012. Our current growth rate has slowed, but it will soon accelerate for one last gasp, fooling everyone into believing that only an unrelenting path of prosperity lies ahead. Instead, we may be able to expect a downturn in 2012 of perhaps the same magnitude as in 1991. Worse, it will hit us no later than the first quarter of that election year. Whom will Americans blame? We have yet to see a political party maintain the White House through that condition. FDR did not face this challenge, because the cyclical contraction points did not coincide with election years (and the war got in the way after that). The same is true of Eisenhower (1956), Nixon (1972), Reagan (1984), and Bush (2004). By comparison, several presidencies have changed parties due to this phenomenon alone, causing Republican losses in 1960 and 1992, and a landslide Republican victory in 1980. Gore’s exception in 2000 was a consequence of the Clinton scandals, and that outcome shows that Watergate-styled scandals can cause a change in party despite a calm economy. In two cases (Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968), the natural incumbent dropped out of the race for reasons of party disloyalty or factioning, and this contributed to the party’s loss of the White House despite stable economic conditions. The year 2012 puts the election years back in alignment with cyclical contractions. No one can survive the effect of 2012.

Except possibly one person. And only one. Mitt Romney would stand a chance. To be sure, it would be the most difficult turnaround feat that he had ever attempted, but if anyone can do the impossible, it is precisely the man who has done the impossible before. I need not re-explain the miracle of the 2002 Winter Olympics. But saving Bain and Company was just as great. Bain and Company is no ordinary business. Business geniuses run Bain and Company, and the firm hires only more geniuses. Bain and Company’s business is to apply its ingenuity to fixing the world’s most complex corporations when they literally need the finest help in the world. Still, the best companies run aground sometimes, even this one. Bain and Company found itself in a quagmire in the late 1980s that even its own talent, the best in the world, could not fix. Desperate, whom did they call? Yes, it was Mitt Romney, a former partner and vice president there, whose ability to work miracles they already knew well. Romney met the challenge by deftly combining superb leadership, untiring negotiation with financiers, and a complex restructuring plan that few would have had the depth of intellect to comprehend, let alone conceive. In the end, Romney succeeded brilliantly on every front, and to this day Bain and Company figures among the most successful business consulting firms in the world. Romney has thus proved himself more than once, against impossible odds, as CEO and as governor of a major economy with a hostile legislature (that was Massachusetts, of course). Never have we had a president of Romney’s economic caliber in our history. Even CEOs with that kind of talent are exceedingly rare.

I do not mean that Mitt Romney should run for president. He has already done that, sacrificing his quest in order to preserve the party. What I mean is that McCain would be wise to select Mitt Romney as his running mate. Not only would McCain thereby secure the conservative vote, but he would give the Republican Party a fighting chance to keep the White House beyond 2012. This, of course, assumes that McCain would let Romney be the one to craft economic policy over the tumultuous term to come. But in fact, there is no other way to do it.

As dismal as this prospect sounds, without Romney on the ticket, the Republicans will lose the White House in 2012, even though they will win handily in the current election year. If I were advising Hillary Clinton, I would help her strategize her 2012 victory, and she would win. Are you ready for that?

Regardless of what choice McCain makes, perhaps it is enough to say that we must vote our conscience. I believe that this is philosophically the Republican way. Conscience and morality governed the philosophy of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. It is the philosophy of the Republican Frederick Douglass, who helped Lincoln recruit volunteer units of African Americans to serve in the Civil War. It is the philosophy of the Republican Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose words, “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” reflect the Republican ideal of respecting the pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence that our Creator endows us all, regardless of race, creed, or color, with “certain unalienable rights.” It is this philosophy that told us that slavery was evil when it was an issue, and that abortion is that same evil reincarnate today. However we vote, let us understand that we are the legacy of the conscience and morality of the Republican Party that wrote the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1871, 1875 (reincarnated as the Civil Rights Act of 1964), 1957, and 1960, as well as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. We cannot act but in accordance with that honorable and far-sighted legacy. We must be honest with ourselves and vote in the best interest of our country’s future, not simply for the lesser of two evils.

I have done my best to consider the future, and my choice is clear. If John McCain selects Mitt Romney as his running mate, my conscience will dictate that I vote Republican. If he does not, then I fear for my nation’s future, and my conscience impels me to vote for someone whose voice more closely matches my own. Perhaps that is former Republican Dr. Alan Keyes, should he run on his own. Perhaps that is former Republican Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party. Perhaps that is former Republican Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party. Under the circumstances of the present time, no such choice will deprive McCain of his victory on November 4. Indeed, it would be neither honorable nor ethical to try to do that per se, despite our legitimate misgivings about McCain from the conservative point of view. But at least we can be true to ourselves and to the better Republican ideals by voting our conscience. Perhaps by strengthening these other philosophically conservative forces, we can help restore the moral philosophy of our forebears, including Lincoln, Douglass, and King, to the Republican Party, a philosophy that at last became consonant with conservatism when Ronald Reagan united the party under the tripartite banner of moral, fiscal, and defense conservatism in 1980.

I live in Georgia. That means that my state is going to vote Republican regardless of my personal choices. My voting for Keyes, Baldwin, or Barr will have no impact on electoral votes. If I lived in a blue state, I would do the same, with the same impact on the outcome. If I lived in a close state, perhaps I would experience more of a crisis of conscience, but in fact, I believe in the end the only good I can do is to do the same. If the Republican Party must go under in 2012, I do not wish to be a part of that demise. I am a philosophical Republican, not a Republican “at all cost.” I refuse to forget the legacy that my vote represents. I believe Mitt Romney embodies that legacy in the most critical way relevant to the coming crisis, and I will pursue that conviction into the voting booth. Should McCain confirm our worst fears by selecting another liberal instead of a conservative for the number-two spot, let us let our conscience prevail, not our fear of Democrat socialism. Come Election Day, let us not check our conscience at the door. Let us instead build our future upon it.

Richard S. Voss, Ph.D.
Former Co-Chair of the Mitt Romney Campaign for Muscogee County, Georgia