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Democrats Should Attack the Trump Economy

Speaking to people left out of the current expansion won votes for the GOP in 2016; championing those who struggle today resonates even more.

Alex Wong/Getty

Donald Trump tried to turn Independence Day into a celebration of himself. It was—thanks to poor planning, bad weather, and his hubris—a catastrophe. But a day later, Trump found another, less expensive way to throw a victory parade: the release of the unexpectedly good jobs numbers from June.

Quieting worries that a long-expected economic slowdown was imminent, the economy added over 200,000 jobs in June. (The unemployment rate ticked up, but only because more people without jobs were looking for them than in the previous month.) At the same time, the stock market has continued to shoot upward, perhaps thanks in large part to the widespread belief that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates—though that may have just become less likely, thanks to the new, robust jobs numbers. (That did not, of course, stop the president from continuing to push the Fed to cut interest rates. “If we had a Fed that would lower interest rates we would be like a rocket ship, but we’re paying a lot of interest and it’s unnecessary,” Trump said. “We don’t have a Fed that knows what they’re doing, so it’s one of those little things.”)

But regardless of what the stock market does Monday, the numbers are a boon for Trump, and bolster one of the reelection arguments he has made (and, honestly, should make, from a pure politics point of view) again and again: The economy is booming because of his leadership.

Democrats have made the case that Trump’s economic success mostly comes down to a mix of luck, the strong economy he inherited from Barack Obama, and a massive corporate tax cut that may have artificially extended the economic expansion. Still, political handicappers will tell you the headlines spell trouble for the party trying unseat Trump in 2020—but it shouldn’t. Democrats have a strong argument to make that this current economy benefits a tiny fraction of the population at the expense of everyone else. And, despite the president’s myriad weaknesses, they shouldn’t fear attacking his apparent strengths.

The political strategy of “attacking the strength” is age-old. The most famous recent example was Karl Rove’s “swiftboating” of John Kerry in the 2004 election, in which Kerry’s military service record was challenged with unsubstantiated accusations that he did not deserve the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts he was awarded for his service in the Vietnam War. Kerry’s record as a war hero was considered to be a strength, given the importance in that election of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Donald Trump used a similar strategy in the 2016 election. The economy at that point was looking fairly rosy, with over 70 consecutive months of job gains. But Trump relentlessly made the case that the economy was rigged, that the figures were being manipulated, and that, in fact, we were living in an economic hellscape. That argument resonated with millions who had not experienced the gains of the recovery. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, found herself in something of a bind: Part of her election argument was that she was the perfect steward of Obama’s legacy and that it made sense to pass the baton to someone who could continue the economic expansion that began during his two terms. But Trump’s attacks, combined with Bernie Sanders’s more accurate message of an economy increasingly dominated by a small number of wealthy elites, made the Clinton message of maintaining the “pretty great already” status quo ring hollow.

Now, in 2020, it’s Democrats’ turn to use the same tactic against Trump. Some—most notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—already have, and to apparently great effect. As investment banker Matthew Mish told The Washington Post last week, this is a “two-tier recovery.” Sixty percent of Americans have benefitted from the expansion—but 40 percent have not. Highlighting the inequity of the recovery, which has been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s tax cuts and deregulatory efforts, could be as successful for Democrats in 2020 as it was for Trump in 2016. Moreover, plans aimed at reducing economic inequality—lessening personal debt, and dealing with the rising costs of health care, housing, and education—should resonate beyond the 40 percent in the bottom tier.

The flimsiness of Trump’s economic argument is also an opportunity. Trump has little else to offer voters. Veteran Republican campaign consultants are practically begging the president to talk more about the performance of the markets and the economy. But that only makes it more important to expose the legerdemain of Trump’s “accomplishments.” Attacking the unpopular tax cuts and highlighting the one-sided economic recovery would take away one of the only reality-based campaign talking points left for the president. It’s not a strong argument, but beyond caging children and filling the swamp, it’s all he has.