Dissing the jobless



Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett has rightly sparked a controversy with his Friday lament about how jobless people would supposedly prefer to suck for eternity on the public teat rather than seek an honest day's pay. In Corbett's words, "The jobs are there. But if we keep extending unemployment, people are just going to sit there." Hence, his exhortation to the jobless: "Get off your duffs and go to work."

It's probably a waste of cyberspace to detail the obvious - that millions of jobless people would clearly prefer to be working full-time with health benefits, as opposed to sinking into despair at home with no such benefits and a weekly unemployment check capped in Pennsylvania at roughly $560 (with the more typical stipend at $310); that, on average nationwide, there are five active job seekers for every opening (and a far worse ratio for the quality openings); and that these unemployment checks at least give the jobless an opportunity to function as consumers and prime the economic pump (a new study by Moody's Analytics concludes that each dollar spent by the government on jobless pay yields an overall return of $1.61 for the economy).

So let's just look at the politics. Bottom line, Corbett's basic narrative about shiftless slackers is fully in sync with his party's fundamental 'tude. Among other examples, Nevada Senate candidate and tea-party heroine Sharron Angle insists that the long-term jobless are "spoiled," House member Dean Heller has condemned them as "hobos," Senator Orrin Hatch has suggested that jobless people applying for extended benefits should first be required to pass a drug test (jobless = junkies), and Senator John Kyl says that the jobless shouldn't get extended benefits because those benefits make the federal deficit worse (by contrast, this weekend Kyl told Fox News Sunday that tax cuts for the wealthy should be extended, even if they make the federal deficit worse). All of this explains why Senate Republicans (joined by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, whose state of Nebraska enjoys a 4.9 percent jobless rate) have blocked the latest push to extend benefits for those on verge of being cut off.

It would appear - at first glance, anyway - that the Republican stance toward the jobless is wildly at odds with the prevailing public mood. In the latest Washington Post-ABC Poll, this question was posed: "Because of the economic downturn, Congress has extended the period in which people can receive unemployment benefits, and is considering doing so again. Supporters say this will help those who can't find work. Opponents say this adds too much to the federal budget deficit. Do you think Congress should or should not approve another extension of unemployment benefits?"

The percentage of those who said that Congress should again extend benefits: 62. The percentage of those opposed: 36.

Even 43 percent of self-identified Republicans (and 57 percent of self-identified moderate/liberal Republicans) are in the Yes camp, apparently buying the basic argument voiced yesterday by a spokesman at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry: "People are not getting rich off of unemployment. They are not putting money in the bank. It's keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads."

But what's striking is that the aforementioned Republican candidates and lawmakers seem not to fear that their Marie Antoinette let-them-eat-cake rhetoric will backfire at the ballot box. The Post-ABC survey only measures general public sentiment, not the sentiment of those who seem most motivated to vote in November. And those with the greatest enthusiasm - notably, tea-party conservatives who (studies show) are more affluent than the norm - generally buy the GOP's harsh caricature.

To borrow Tom Corbett's terminology, the real question is whether diehard Democrats will get off their duffs and go to the polls en masse in November, or whether they're too demoralized by the current state of play. The GOP's willingness to diss the jobless is proof that they anticipate a decisive conservative turnout.