If you're wondering why a formerly honorable man like John McCain would build his presidential campaign around issues that are simultaneously beside-the-point, trivial, and dishonest (sex education for kindergartners, lipstick on pigs), the numbers presented here may help to solve that mystery. Since the conventions ended, McCain has mired the presidential race in dishonest trivia because he doesn't want it to focus on what voters say is the most important issue this year: the economy.
There is no secret about any of this. The figures below are all from the annual Economic Report of the President, and the analysis is primitive. Nevertheless, what these numbers show almost beyond doubt is that Democrats are better at virtually every economic task that is important to Republicans.
In other words, there are no figures here about income inequality, or percentage of the population with health insurance, or anything like that. This exercise implicitly assumes that lower taxes are always good and higher government spending is always bad. There is nothing here about how clean the air is or how many children are growing up in poverty. The only point is that if you find the Republican mantra of lower taxes and smaller government appealing, and if you care only about how fast the economy is growing, not how that growth is shared, you should vote Democratic. Of course, if you do care about things like economic inequality and children's health, you should vote Democratic as well.
Tab 1 reports the performance of the U.S. economy in seven categories from the years 1959 to 2007. (Where the President's Economic Report doesn't include figures for 1959 or 2007, those years are left out.) The most important measure of a nation's economic strength is gross domestic product. But comparing GDPs among various presidents would be unfair. Since the economy does tend to grow over time (or always has), more recent presidents would enjoy an unfair advantage. And every president inherits a situation; the question is what he does with it.
So the measure I use is "Change in Real GDP Per Capita," which corrects for inflation and also for population growth. It asks: If the output of the economy were divided equally among the population, how would each share have changed during these years?
Of the other measures, inflation is self-explanatory. So is unemployment. Federal taxes, spending, and the deficit are recorded as percentages of GDP: What part of the nation's economic output is commandeered by the government each year? How much of that does the government actually pay for, and how much does it finance by borrowing? And since defense spending is the one exception to the general dislike for government, figures are included for federal spending minus defense. At the bottom of Chart 1 is the average per year for every year of roughly the past half-century. I haven't cheated: These are the years the President's Economic Report reports.
The results are surprising, I think. Tab 2 and Tab 3 figure separately the averages for years with Republican presidents and years with Democratic ones. Then Tab 4 compares those averages. On average, in years when the president is a Democrat, the economy grows faster; inflation is lower; fewer people can't find a job; the federal government spends a smaller share of GDP, whether or not you include defense spending; and the deficit is lower (or—sweet Clinton-years memory—the surplus is higher). The one category that Republicans win is, unsurprisingly, federal taxes as a share of GDP. But it is no trick to lower taxes if you don't lower spending.
Among many objections that could be made to this calculation, some of them legitimate, one is that a president's economic policy doesn't work overnight. To account for that, Tab 5 goes back and recalculates everything with a one-year lag. That is, if George W. Bush's father was president in the years 1989 through 1992, inclusive (was he? Hard to believe …), his years of economic impact are assumed to be 1990 through 1993. This changes the result remarkably little. Republicans win in two of the seven categories, with a tiny .01 percent lead in lower inflation.
Some people believe that the president has little or no effect on the economy. If so, that would be a serious flaw in this exercise. But it would also be a serious flaw in the exercise called democracy, since people tell pollsters that the economy is the most important issue for them in deciding whom to vote for. No doubt any particular bad year in any of these statistics can be explained by some extrinsic special event—a war, for example. But surely patterns that emerge over half a century account for these. At some point, if Republicans or Democrats tend to start more wars, and wars cost money, that can be a legitimate part of the calculation.
Finally, as economist Greg Mankiw points out in his blog, reacting to a similar calculation by Alan Blinder (both of them former chairs of the president's Council of Economic Advisers), correlation is not causation. Maybe economic statistics are better when the president is a Democrat for reasons having nothing to do with the president's skill in handling the economy. My own feeling about that is that as long as the pattern continues, who cares why? Correlation will do just fine.