This debate is about the real track record

The second presidential debate will focus on the economics of the middle classes, writes CAP's Heather Boushey.

President Obama and Governor Romney are preparing for their next big showdown in New York tonight. This debate will feature audience questions in a “town hall” format. Many Americans, including myself, will want to know who will do more over the next four years for the middle class and who will support the strongest job creation. This is the key challenge facing American and is the political territory that could be most decisive in next month’s election.

Romney will win this debate if he is able to convince the American public that President Obama’s economic policies have been a failure and that his economic plan will generate job gains. Romney claims that his economic plan will create 12 million jobs and that 7 million of them will come about as a result of his tax cuts.

But US economists, including myself, question whether Romney’s job creation claim can be believed. If anything, Romney’s 59-point economic plan will most likely push the US back into a recession. Economists estimate that, at best, it will create around 87,000 jobs in next year, or, at worse, could actually lead to the loss of anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 jobs.

Romney’s economic plan is a “jobs fail” because it is based on the same economic logic that supply-siders have been pushing on the US economy for some time now. The supply-side story is that if the government gives the wealthy back their taxes, they will invest those added funds, thus growing the economy, creating jobs, and improving middle-class incomes. In the 1980s and 2000s, policymakers did exactly that, but it didn’t work. Both eras experienced significant tax cuts aimed at higher-income households that were supposed to spur investment.

President Obama will win the debate if he runs on his record and exposes the Romney economic plan. Over the past year, the US economy has added 1.8 million jobs, which is a strong track record of solid job gains, month after month. The private sector has added jobs every month for 31 months and the unemployment rate is now where it was when Obama took office.

Jobs have come back because policymakers acted decisively. In February 2009, before he had even been in office a month, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped nearly $800bn into the U.S. economy and stopped the haemorrhaging of jobs. Later that year, the administration helped stabilize the auto industry, which has helped that sector turn itself around into a job-generating industry for 27 of the past 36 months.

If Obama can articulate his record and expose Romney’s plan, tonight’s debate will be a home run. If Romney can avoid scrutiny and run down the President’s record it, could be game on for the third and final debate.

Heather Boushey is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Senior Economist at CAP

Obama and Romney after the first debate. Photograph: Getty Images

Heather Boushey is a Visiting Fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear