I have a question for my Republican friends.
Yes, that sounds like the setup for a smackdown, but though the question is pointed, it is also in earnest. I'd seriously like to know:
If Republican fiscal policies really are the key to prosperity, if the GOP formula of low taxes and little regulation really does unleash economic growth, then why has the country fared better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones and why are red states the poorest states in the country?
You may recall that Bill Clinton touched on this at the 2012 Democratic Convention. He claimed that, of all the private sector jobs created since 1961, 24 million had come under Republican presidents and a whopping 42 million under Democrats. After Clinton said that, I waited for PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking organization, to knock down what I assumed was an obvious exaggeration.
But PolitiFact rated the statement true. Moreover, it rated as "mostly true" a recent claim by Occupy Democrats, a left-wing advocacy group, that nine of the 10 poorest states are red ones. The same group earned the same rating for a claim that 97 of the 100 poorest counties are in red states.
And then there's a recent study by Princeton economists Alan Binder and Mark Watson that finds the economy has grown faster under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. Under the likes of Nixon, Reagan and Bush they say we averaged an annual growth rate of 2.54 percent. Under the likes of Kennedy, Clinton and Obama? 4.35 percent.
Yours truly is no expert in economics, so you won't read any grand theories here as to why all this is. You also won't read any endorsement of Democratic economic policy.
Instead, let me point out a few things in the interest of fairness.
The first is that people who actually are economic experts say the ability of any given president to affect the economy -- for good or for ill -- tends to be vastly overstated. Even Binder and Watson caution that the data in their study do not support the idea that Democratic policies are responsible for the greater economic performance under Democratic presidents.
It is also worth noting that PolitiFact's endorsements of Occupy Democrats' claims come with multiple caveats. In evaluating the statement about 97 of the 100 poorest counties being red, for instance, PolitiFact reminds us that red states tend to have more rural counties and rural counties tend to have lower costs of living. It also points out that a modest income in rural Texas may actually give you greater spending power than the same income in Detroit. So comparisons can be misleading.
Duly noted. But the starkness and sheer preponderance of the numbers are hard to ignore. As of 2010, according to the Census Bureau, Connecticut, which has not awarded its electoral votes to a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, had a per capita income of $56,000, best in the country, while Mississippi, which hasn't gone Democrat since 1976, came in at under $32,000 -- worst in the country. At the very least, stats like these should call into question GOP claims of superior economic policy.
Yet, every election season the party nevertheless makes those claims. It will surely do so again this fall. So it seems fair to ask: Where are the numbers that support the assertion? Why is Texas only middling in terms of per capita income? Why is Mississippi not a roaring engine of economic growth? How are liberal Connecticut and Massachusetts doing so well?
It seems to suggest Republican claims are, at best, overblown. If that's not the case, I'd appreciate it if some Republican would explain why. Otherwise, I have another earnest, but pointed question for my Democratic friends:
How in the world do they get away with this?
NOTE: In a recent column, I pegged the indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry to his "Democratic opponents." Though the indictment did come out of Austin, which is a blue island in the red sea that is Texas, I should have noted that the judge who assigned a special prosecutor in the case is a Republican appointee and the prosecutor he chose has, according to PolitiFact, ties to both parties.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.