With a stagnant 8.2% unemployment rate and only 80,000 jobs created, the June jobs report, like its past few inceptions, delivered disappointing news for President Obama. If numbers like these persist, as this New York Times story suggests, it looks like this is going to be the economy that will be on the ballot on November 6. With his new entitlement officially ruled a "tax," Obama is left with little other than rhetorical bones like gay marriage to throw his base.
Yet, one man's misfortune is another man's fortune. For Mitt Romney, the bad jobs report is another stroke against a struggling incumbent. While the Republicans are still trying to make sense of Romney's latest triangulation on health care, they are stuck with him and so is the rest of the country if they determine ObamaCare and fiscal stimuli were not enough to resuscitate a tanking economy.
This economic news is useful because it is likely to overtake any meaningful discussion of health care for the remainder of the election for several reasons.
First, the health care ruling isn't going to have a big impact on the election except insofar as voters are aggravated about a new tax. With the Supreme Court upholding the national version of Massachusetts health care, Romney too is saddled as a tax raiser and therefore will avoid any unnecessary talk about it.
But this is not as inherent a problem for Romney as it might seem. One, he only imposed his tax on one state, one that was already dubbed "Tax-achusetts" so his tax made little substantive difference. Two, Romney's version came out in 2006. In modern American politics six years may as well be six centuries. If Paul Ryan can be a great budgetary hawk today after being a reliable Bush Administration spender perhaps enough people can believe Romney will repeal ObamaCare, but the larger point still remains: the health care ruling won't make a great difference in the election.
So might this be a year for independents and third parties to take a larger role?
Unfortunately, 2012 does not look like a good time for such a scenario. According to a recent Gallup poll, no third party candidate receives more than 3% of the vote. For an electorate supposedly fed up with polarized politics as usual, there is remarkably little interest in actually voting for a third option. Even though the Libertarian and Constitution Parties are the next two largest American political parties and have nominated veteran office holders, Gary Johnson and Virgil Goode respectively, they still can't gain any traction: 3% for Johnson and less than 1% for Goode.
The problems for third parties are legion and well-known. Ballot-access laws are notoriously onerous, but perhaps the most daunting reality is that the two-party system is so ingrained in the American body politic that by dating back to the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, it is actually older than the Constitution itself.
The two-party system is not itself the problem. If the two parties represented at least two opposing governing schemes then it might be a tolerable system. But for over a century the two parties having increasingly taken to resembling each other in governance if not in rhetoric. In this way, the 2012 contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a dream election.
When the political bullets begin to fly the natural inclination is to return home and defend one's own. This is one of the finest of American traditions, but when applied to electoral politics it's produced nothing more than a preservation of the status quo.
With a sagging economy, inert job growth, and an utter distaste for the other party, this system looks healthy enough to survive yet another election.