The headline for the latest poll says that public confidence in President Obama has sunk to a new low, with a majority of Americans saying they don’t trust him to make the best policy choices, especially on the ailing economy. These same voters, surveyed by The Washington Post and ABC News, are even more disdainful of Congress, split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Those numbers may portend a shift in partisan control of the House and a loss of Democratic seats in the Senate if citizens express their anger by punishing incumbents.

But the furious and frustrated electorate should be careful when they demand change in the upcoming midterm elections — because what they get may well be very different from what they actually want.

To understand why, let’s look again at the findings of that poll. While that survey (and many others) shows Americans deeply polarized over partisan preferences, the Obama presidency and other questions, there is broad agreement on at least one critical issue: extending unemployment benefits for the millions who have lost jobs and remain out of work. Fully 62 percent said that Congress should continue to extend benefits; only 36 percent said it should not, with 2 percent undecided. Most independents joined most Democrats in supporting extended benefits — and even 43 percent of Republicans agreed.

But when Republican congressional and Senate candidates are asked that same question, their responses are negative — strangely and sometimes harshly out of touch with the current realities of American life.

Listen to Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada, a Scientology adherent who also favors returning the country to prohibition of alcohol. Although there are five unemployed workers in this country for every available job, she believes that unemployment insurance is keeping people from seeking work.

“You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but it doesn’t pay as much,” she said not long ago. “We’ve put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.” She is not only heartless but badly misinformed, since she apparently doesn’t know that the average weekly unemployment check is scarcely higher than the minimum wage in most places. It would be educational for her to attempt to maintain a family with that level of income.

Not every Republican running for office this year necessarily shares that brutal viewpoint, and few of them are stupid enough to say so as bluntly as Angle. Yet the idea that unemployment benefits ought to be cut off to encourage people to find work — even when there is no work to be found — reflects the Republican consensus.

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, for example, sees cutting off benefits as “tough love.” The only way to revive the economy, in his view, is for Americans to “accept a wage that’s less than we had at our previous job in order to get back to work.”

Neither Paul nor Angle should be seen as outside their party’s mainstream. In the Senate, Republicans have consistently blocked the extension of unemployment benefits using similar arguments. Sen. Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican who holds his party’s second-ranking position in the Senate, explained last March on the Senate floor that he would vote against extending benefits because unemployment insurance “doesn’t create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.”

Such is the Republican vision in 2010, echoing that of the 19th century: a nation of workers toiling longer hours for far less money, descending to the threshold of poverty. Nobody who votes for them in anger should complain when that is what America becomes.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2010


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