Ultimately, politicians and governments are judged by citizens through the lens of how well things are going in their personal lives, especially with regard to jobs and economic opportunity. This raises some interesting questions:
Given the lousy national economy, why hasn't Mitt Romney yet been able to convince a majority of voters that he can do better than President Barack Obama?
Pignanelli: "Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame." — Laurence J. Peter. Since 1912, only four incumbent presidents were defeated in re-election. Of those, Presidents Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were ousted primarily because the economic turmoil originated during their term in office. They simply could not shake the blame — real or imagined — for causing or ignoring the misery. Although receiving mixed reviews for his actions, Americans understand that Obama is not responsible for causing or ignoring the country's current problems. Romney and national Republicans are further disadvantaged because they are unable to articulate a clear alternative response. Indeed, the powerful business organizations (i.e., U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Manufacturing Association, etc.) all supported the stimulus program. The bank and auto bailouts began in the Bush administration.
Because the economic recovery is so slow, Obama would lose to the sunny, optimistic "happy conservative warrior" with a strong vision that connects well with independents and moderate Democrats (i.e., Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Paul Ryan). Romney is not such a politician. Further, of all the speakers in both national conventions, only New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emphasized the hard truth: "Our problems are big and the solutions will not be painless." Romney did not follow up Christie's challenge with a bold plan and instead maintained his "blame Obama" strategy. A majority of Americans are not accepting this directionless message.
Webb: America is a center-right nation, at least in theory. But most citizens, businesses and states won't turn down government handouts when they're offered. Today, only about half of Americans pay any income taxes at all and about half receive government payments or subsidies in some form or another. So in a tough economy, why not vote for the guy who promises more and bigger government programs, more benefits, more government help in every phase of life and, best of all, tax those greedy rich people to pay for it?
It's a pretty appealing argument. Austerity isn't all that much fun. Trouble is, the Obama Way is not sustainable. At some point it will all come crashing down.
Obama certainly started with an economic mess. But he enjoyed a window of opportunity in his first two years, when Democrats controlled the entire federal government, to establish pro-growth policies, including sensible tax reform, rational entitlement reform, domestic energy production and prudent deficit reduction. Those measures would have produced solid economic growth by now.
Instead, he used his election mandate to pass a confusing, unpopular and expensive health reform law and enacted a gigantic stimulus package that threw money at every liberal program imaginable. He dramatically boosted the size of the federal government and exploded the federal debt, using all those federal programs and federal money to increase citizen dependency on government.
It takes sophisticated and aggressive communications to explain all of this to the American people so they will vote for the guy who promises that austerity will produce growth and prosperity. Romney hasn't completely broken through, but I still have faith in voters.
Utah's economy isn't exactly roaring, but it is doing better than most states and the nation as a whole. What impact will Utah's economy have on the major Utah races?
Pignanelli: Utahns generally perceive that the state weathered the economic crisis fairly well, which benefits Gov. Gary Herbert — as evidenced in high approval ratings. This emotion also indirectly boosts support for legislators (who deserve, but rarely receive, credit for Utah achievements). Because tax increases and cuts to services were avoided, most Republican incumbents enjoy a strong momentum. Yet, this ignores the fact that state government dodged painful surgery because of billions from federal stimulus. Also, many projects in the state were completed only because of this assistance. If Democrats can properly message this truth, their campaigns could be strengthened.
Webb: Utah Democrats will suffer net losses in this election, especially with Romney at the top of the ticket. The two big Democratically controlled positions, Salt Lake County mayor and Jim Matheson's congressional seat, are under serious assault, considered toss-ups by the pundits. Democrats will likely lose legislative seats. Tough year for the donkey party.
What can Utah's political leaders do to ensure a vibrant economy, and what should they avoid?
Pignanelli: We must not attempt to replicate other communities. Utah leaders have shifted the strategy of re-creating Silicon Valley in Utah to emphasizing our unique strengths and abilities — which is paying dividends.
Webb: While other states struggle, now is the time for Utah to invest to surge ahead of the crowd. We must invest in the basics — education, infrastructure and energy development — while maintaining limited government, balanced budgets and reasonable taxes. If we do it right, we have the opportunity to become the nation's most prosperous, successful state.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.