Democrats in Congress spent a lot of time and energy this spring hammering congressional Republicans for refusing to extend federal unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless. But when they hit the campaign trail this fall, there’s good reason to believe that Democrats will be mum about unemployment insurance.
The federal program that supplements state unemployment insurance expired at the end of last year. State benefits usually run out at 26 weeks, and the federal extension provided additional aid, at one point pushing benefits out to 99 weeks. Last December, the program expired, and since then Republicans in Congress have fiercely resisted Democrats’ efforts to renew the program, despite the rate of long-term unemployment being double the rate at which the program has been allowed to expire in other economic recoveries.
On its face, it seems like a natural campaign issue for Democrats running in the fall. Millions of jobless Americans were suddenly cut off from a support program that had previously been available to their fellow citizens. About 3 million Americans who would have been eligible for benefits have been cut off so far, and that number will be in the neighborhood of 5 million by Election Day, and the reason is pure, unadulterated Republican resistance.
However, the complicated dynamics of a political campaign may mean that Democrats have to relinquish what looks like a very effective weapon to use on their opponents.
A primary reason is that by raising the issue of unemployment insurance, whether they like it or not, candidates are also raising the issue of continued high unemployment. And after six years with a Democratic president in the White House, fairly or unfairly, the public tends to blame the current jobs situation on the President and his party.
While the issue will surely resonate with a large number of Democrats’ supporters, one campaign consultant said “the lines are already drawn” on unemployment insurance – meaning that continued pounding on the issue is unlikely to push undecided voters in one direction or another.
Finally, in terms of driving people to the polls, campaign experts point out that many of the long-term unemployed are disenfranchised, discouraged, and “just don’t turn out to vote.”
“At a time when the economy is slowly but surely getting a bit better, I’m not sure the number of those affected is really going to drive the issue at the polls,” said Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, now director of the communications practice at the QGA Public Affairs.
Additionally, he said, the subject has fallen off the public’s radar. “It’s wrong but many people have forgotten about this issue,” said Manley. “There’s a lot of gripping stories out there, but people just aren’t paying attention. Republicans aren’t feeling the pressure.”
People studying competitive House and Senate races say that, so far at least, candidates have generally been leaving the issue alone.
“It’s something the Democrats have been pushing for on the Hill, but hasn’t been a huge deal in some of these races,” said Kyle Kondik, director of communications for the University of Virginia’s Center on Politics.
“If Democrats are looking for an economic argument they think minimum wage is a more popular thing,” he said.
Not all advocates for the unemployed have given up hope on seeing the issue of unemployment insurance become a major element of the fall campaign season.
“I think that we are going to see Democrats focus on all the bread and butter issues that separate them from the Republicans during the election season – all the ‘which side are you on’ issues,” said Judy Conti, Federal Advocacy Coordinator for the National Employment Law Project. “Expect to see them focus on the minimum wage, equal pay, unemployment insurance – all the things that help people who have fallen on hard times make ends meet. They’ll tout their support of those issues, and the Republican opposition.”
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