Facing a potentially historic bloodbath in the fall’s midterm elections, Republicans have settled on a narrative that might save their majorities in Congress—and, perhaps, the presidency. Donald Trump may be broadly unpopular, but the economy is roaring. Unemployment is low, the stock market is (despite some turbulence) high, and the effects of the $1.5 trillion tax bill passed in December are beginning to be felt. The message is simple: Don’t sweat the chaos in the West Wing; it’s the economy, stupid.
Republicans spent millions of dollars pushing this narrative in this week’s special election in Pennsylvania 18th District. At a raucous rally outside of Pittsburgh days before polls opened, Trump told voters, “The economy is the best it’s ever been.” And yet Republican Rick Saccone lost to Democrat Conor Lamb—who ran against the tax bill—in a district that went to Trump by 20 points less than eighteen months ago.
Speaker Paul Ryan has responded to this setback by putting his head in the sand, arguing that Saccone lost because he didn’t publicize the corporate tax cuts strongly enough. (In fact, Saccone’s campaign all but dropped the tax cut line when it became clear that it didn’t stick, and spent the eleventh hour of the campaign making an aggressive culture war push.) Trump, too, will undoubtedly continue clinging to the economy like a talisman, tweeting about its performance constantly and making outlandish claims about its performance at rallies.
Republicans are falling into a political trap that feels familiar—in fact, it’s one that Democrats fell into in the 2016 election.
In a big-picture sense, the economy was looking very good in 2016. Under President Obama’s stewardship, the economy had recovered from the Great Recession. By the time he left office the labor market had added jobs for 75 straight months, a record. While economic growth was never white-hot, it was a steady 2 percent a year. Unemployment, which was at 10 percent when Obama entered office, was less than 5 percent when he left. There was significant wage growth. The deficit had been brought down from almost 10 percent of GDP to just over 3 percent.
Given these numbers—and the economic success under the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton—Democrats had good reason to trumpet their accomplishments and run as strong stewards of the economy.
That is, to an extent, what Hillary Clinton did. On the trail, she praised Obama for “saving the economy” and promised to complete the economic recovery he had started. Her detailed and difficult-to-synthesize economic plan had no core message, partly due to Clinton’s policy sprawl and partly due to the assumption that a core message wasn’t really necessary. The Clinton plan was to make a good economy great.
There were tactical reasons for this as well. The politics were good. Clinton wanted to remind voters that her husband was president the last time that people felt good about the economy—and even suggested that he would have a role in economic policy in her administration. Embracing Obama was important as well, since Obama was ultimately her bulwark against the biggest threat to her nomination: Bernie Sanders.
But Sanders—and, on the Republican side, Donald Trump—had a different economic message, which was that the economy actually wasn’t doing very well at all. Total catastrophe may have been averted, but tens of millions of people had been left behind by the new economy and were struggling to make ends meet. Both had very different prescriptions, of course. Sanders offered a host of policies aimed at raising social spending and curbing income inequality, while Trump suggested building a time machine to an unspecified historical period (probably the 1950s?) when the economy was really humming. But the overall message was the same: The numbers might look good, but there are big holes in the recovery.
While Obama’s popularity increased throughout 2016, the economy was nevertheless the one issue where Trump consistently polled higher than Clinton. She tried to square the circle with the platform that became “An Economy That Works For Everyone,” which argued both points: Yes, the economy was doing pretty well, but it could be doing more for more people. But this, combined with her nuanced policy proposals, was difficult to absorb, particularly when up against Trump’s apocalyptic and conspiratorial rants about offshoring and American decline.
The Clinton campaign never could find the right balance, and she herself admitted as much earlier this week, albeit in characteristically ham-handed fashion: “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” Taken charitably, what she meant was that she won the people who had won in the Obama economy, and lost those who had lost.
Now that Trump and Republicans have the keys to the economy, they’ve decided that it looks great. Instead of using a relatively stable economy to tackle issues like income inequality—which is what you would have expected from a Clinton or a Sanders administration—they have gone the opposite route, tilting it further in favor of corporations and the very rich. The result is a good economy, one whose spoils are unequally distributed.
The Republican response has been to act as if the modest benefits that working people have experienced—the $1.50 paycheck increase, to give one example—are no different than the millions and billions being pocketed by the richest. And then, when they lose elections in districts where they had previously won by ten points or more, they act surprised.
So far, Republicans have struggled to recreate the Trump coalition of working-class and suburban voters. Trump was able to forge this coalition in part by promising to preserve social spending while changing America’s relationship to trade and holding the corrupt accountable—a message that resonated with the people who had been left behind. But in office Trump has governed like a standard-issue Republican, giving massive tax cuts to the rich and leaving everyone else out in the cold. So he and other Republicans have fallen back on touting the strength of the economy, as Clinton did, holding it up as proof that everyone is winning. It wasn’t true 18 months ago, and it isn’t true now.