The GOP's Carter Moment

Very broadly speaking, when you look at people who gravitate toward the two political parties, the GOP tends to be the party of economic optimists - people who are confident about their professional lives, their future prospects, and the country's economic health - and the Democratic Party tends to be the party of people who worry and fret about both their personal fortunes and those of the nation as a whole. This divide has a host of implications, but I think Phil Gramm's instantly-controversial remarks about America being in a "mental recession," in which a "nation of whiners" can't see through all the media hype about bad economic news and recognize that "we've never been more dominant; we've never had more natural advantages than we have today," is a good example of one of them: When economic times are tough, Democratic politicians and pundits tend to go way overboard exaggerating how dire things are, while Republican politicians and pundits tend to go way overboard insisting that everything's fine and the public needs to stop whining, stop listening to the media, and start enjoying the good times. In 1979, the tendency to play to type produced Jimmy Carter's famous malaise speech, in which the American people were informed that the solution to their economic problems was to accept a wartime mentality in which the government would massively regulate the energy sector and everyone would have to make do with much, much less. In the 2000s, it's produced too many Republicans who think and talk like Phil Gramm, whether they're insisting that a sluggish economic recovery with weak wage growth for most middle-income Americans actually represents "the greatest story never told," or claiming that we can just "drill our way out" of the current energy crunch.

Of course there's some truth to Gramm's remarks about America's fundamentals remaining strong (though the claim that "we've never been more dominant" seems like something of a stretch - the post-World War II era says hello), just as there was truth to the late-'70s anxieties about what America's dependence on foreign oil portended for the future. But there are other relevant truths as well, the art of politics involves striking a balance, and a political party that lurches too far toward either Panglossianism or pessimism isn't long for power. Just ask Jimmy Carter.