How in the World Can Republicans Think the Economy Is Their Strong Suit?

Posted in: Tax and Economics

Although there is no reason to expect that we will know the results of the election immediately, we at least know that the voting will end tomorrow evening. Where do Donald Trump and the Republicans find themselves during these last days of campaigning?

Amusingly, there is a split between Trump and his enablers, with everyone but Trump wishing that he would become “disciplined” and talk about his supposed strong suit. And what is that golden topic, that policy area that would have people flocking to vote for Trump, if only he would stop talking about Hunter Biden and Lesley Stahl? The economy, if you can believe it.

Why do I find that amusing—indeed, how can I find anything amusing, given that I am still worried that the entire election will turn out to have been an empty exercise, with Trump and five or six members of the Supreme Court conspiring to keep him in office? Because if voting actually matters, it is simply amazing to think that Republicans would want Trump to focus on the economy in his campaigning.

Trump’s economic record was already terrible before the pandemic hit, and it is even worse now. If the economy is their best play, then they are truly in trouble. Heck, if I were advising them—and, crucially, if I had no commitment to constitutional democracy—I would have to tell them to steal the election, too. They certainly cannot win it on the merits.

The Perverse Logic of Revealing One’s Weakness to Voters

To be sure, there is a rather puzzling but persistent polling pattern that shows that voters generally express greater confidence in Trump and the Republicans on economic issues than on any other issue. That is, in part, simply because a ranking of voters’ confidence on various issues would have to show that one issue is their least weak policy area. It is like putting together a ranked list of fan-fiction scripts for the next Star Wars movie: one of them will be the least bad, but so what?

Even so, there is apparently a persistent belief among some nontrivial number of voters that Republicans, perhaps because they are supported by businesspeople, somehow know something about how to improve the economy. There is overwhelming evidence that the knowledge necessary to understand an economy in no way overlaps with the knowledge necessary to run a business, but too few voters are aware of that.

But the central problem with Republicans’ calls to focus on their supposed strength is that doing so would be the very thing that would disabuse voters of the idea that Trump and his party are good at economics. If everyone thinks that you are a great martial artist, but you in fact know nothing about it, then the last thing to do is to tell everyone to watch while you show off your spinning kicks, only to fall flat on your face. What was wrongly perceived as a strength quickly becomes an epic fail.

Indeed, this is the converse of the idea that former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove popularized, which is that it is best to attack one’s opponent’s greatest strength, not his weaknesses. Here, it is worst to boast about one’s own supposed greatest strength, because once that weakness is exposed, there is nothing left.

How big is that weakness? Stay with me.

What Else Are They Going to Talk About?

In 2015, five justices on the Supreme Court (including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy, who have been replaced by hard-right conservative ideologues) issued the Obergefell decision recognizing the constitutional right to same-sex marriage. In the same term, the Court failed for a second time to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

When disappointed conservatives tried to regroup, some pundits suggested that this was actually a good thing, because it would force Republicans to give up on culture-war battles that they had already lost in the court of public opinion. Better to move on to something else.

The problem, however, was that there was no “something else” to which Republicans could turn for succor, because their policies in every other area were also highly unpopular. As I put it in the title of a Dorf on Law column at the time: “Republicans Can Now Return to Their Other Unpopular Positions.” From advocating a humane immigration policy to protecting a woman’s right to choose, from being a good ally to our friends abroad to increasing taxes on the rich, the Democrats hold the more popular positions.

And that is even more true today, after five years of Trump’s effect on Republican politics. Deranged conspiracy theories, restrictions on legal immigration and even refugee admissions, support for Confederate war traitors, and virtually every other issue that Trump has promoted are poisonous to clear majorities of Americans. There is a reason, after all, that Republicans’ only hope for electoral salvation is by denying people the right to vote.

So even though Trump himself has said bluntly that he thinks it would bore his rally crowds if he were to repeat talking points about the economy, it might actually be true that his advisors are right to think that—from a list of losing policy positions—maybe their economic ideas would do them the least political damage. Maybe.

The Pre-COVID-19 Economy: Republicans’ Revisionist History is Silly

I noted above that the pre-pandemic economy was hardly anything to write home about. But how can that be, given that “everyone’s 401(k)’s got bigger” (as Trump has said) and the unemployment rate continued its decline that had begun at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency?

Just over a year ago, I wrote a two-part column on Verdict (here and here) in which I described just how much economic weakness and pain—for everyone but the plutocrats who bankroll the Republican Party—was hidden behind those unemployment numbers. The problem is that working Americans, even when they had jobs, did not earn enough money to feel at all secure.

This was in part because Republicans opposed increases in the minimum wage and other policies that might have pushed up Americans’ incomes, but even more important was the lack of adequate benefits. Even before the pandemic hit, workers were living in fear that their families would be destroyed by a medical catastrophe. It is even worse now.

And as far as those 401(k) plans go, even setting aside the fact that those accounts increased in value even more under Obama, the fact is that most people’s inadequate benefits include inadequate retirement savings. Only about one-third of workers even have a 401(k), and among those who do, only the highest-paid workers are saving more than a pittance—precisely because most people do not have enough left over after paying their bills to set anything aside for their retirements. When people hear Trump saying, “But what about the stock market?” most people correctly respond: “What about it? It doesn’t affect me.”

Readers who are interested in an economic analysis that goes into more detail on these issues might find my two-part column useful and possibly even interesting, but my point here is that the economy—in this case, even harkening back to the pre-pandemic economy—is not a politically useful issue for Republicans.

The easiest way to see that this is true is that Donald Trump was trailing Joe Biden and every other major Democratic candidate in head-to-head matchups before the coronavirus hit. Indeed, one reason that Trump corruptly tried to coerce the president of Ukraine to invent stories about the Bidens is that Trump saw how truly bad his poll numbers were against Biden in particular. Trump, being incapable of doing anything to appeal to people who are not already his devoted fans, decided that the only thing to do was to try (unsuccessfully) to tear down his strongest opponent.

So without the pandemic, we would have seen the Democrats nominate someone who would have been leading Trump in the polls right away, notwithstanding the occasional out-of-context economic statistic that Trump and the Republicans might have trotted out.

Moreover, the only action that Trump and his party had taken on the economy was their two-trillion-dollar 2017 tax cut, which was hugely weighted toward the rich and was already unpopular among the American public.

In addition, as the economist Joseph Stiglitz pointed out in an op-ed on Saturday, the few crumbs in the 2017 tax bill that actually did help non-rich people were designed by Republicans to expire, some beginning next year.

So if the Republicans want Trump to talk about the economy by saying that everything pre-pandemic was going great, they are expecting people to forget that their lives were insecure even before 225,000 Americans had died of a disease that Trump has no interest in controlling. (According to his campaign, he has already solved the pandemic.)

Is There an Advantage in Having Failed?

All of this is, however, dealing with hypotheticals. If people would have forgotten most of what they knew about the pre-pandemic economy, and if Republicans could get them to think that the current economic devastation was not Trump’s fault, then maybe it would be possible to turn the terrible current economy into a political plus.

Sorry, Republicans, but no one was going to buy that, either. Nearly every pundit and late-night comedian has already mocked the idea that losing tens of millions of jobs and then presiding over the return of some—but nowhere near all—of those jobs is insane. Seth Meyers, host of “Late Night” on NBC, put it this way a few months ago: It’s like promoting a weight-loss plan for people who put on 20 pounds during quarantine: “We’ll help you lose five pounds, and then stop.” (I am drawing from memory, but that was the basic idea.)

I think an even better way to think about this is to draw on the analogy that the economist Paul Krugman popularized earlier this year. The economy, he argued, was like a patient who had been put into an induced coma. Yes, supporting the comatose patient was necessary (or, in the real world, compensating people for job losses was essential), but that was not a reason not to induce the coma; it was a reason to give the patient support while her body was being treated for a serious disease.

The point is that the coma is supposed to be part of a strategy to make the patient recover, and that means doing what is needed to bring her out of the coma at the right time and with the needed support.

What did Trump do instead? He insisted in bringing the patient out of the coma too soon, railing against the idea that the country needed more time to get the disease under control. He thus politicized the economic side of things and pulled the patient out of the coma prematurely.

And what happens when a person is brought out of a coma? Her vital signs, at least initially, look better than they did during the coma, of course. But that is not a sign of strength or long-term health. Indeed, in a weakened post-coma condition, the patient will try to do what she can to function, but she runs the risk of relapse or worse.

Trump and the Republicans, however, want to talk about the supposed “V-shaped recovery,” which is the analogy to the improved vital signs in a post-coma patient. Of course the economy was going to show signs of recovery, but when the economy adds back some jobs, that is welcome, but it is not a sign of robust or sustainable health.

Indeed, we are now seeing once again that there is no tradeoff between getting the pandemic under control and getting the economy truly back to a healthy state. The new spike in cases, higher than ever before, is not going to give anyone confidence that the world can return to normal. Even people who are willing to take more risks than they should, because of “COVID fatigue” or anything else, are not spending as much money as they would if it were genuinely safe to go shopping and to eat at restaurants. The economy will continue to stagger along until the coronavirus is truly controlled.

So when Trump actually does make his advisors happy by bragging about some acontextual economic statistic, he only makes it easier for Biden and the Democrats—and, indeed, for anyone who is not deluded—to say that Trump is trying to take credit for the inevitable partial good news while ignoring the overall devastation that people are feeling.

But was the economic dive not a classic “act of God,” making it not Trump’s fault that the economy needed the induced coma in the first place? Even setting aside Trump’s “playing down” of the virus in January and February, the point is that “Things got bad, and they’re part of the way back” is not a political winner, which is why the Republicans have to pretend that history began in April 2020.

Remember also that Republicans insisted on larding the initial coronavirus relief plan—the one that actually passed both houses of Congress and that Trump signed earlier this year—with handouts to themselves and their wealthy friends. Back in March of this year, I reluctantly argued that this Republican self-dealing was a necessary price to pay, and I still believe that to be true, but that did not make it any less corrupt.

More to the point, as an article in The Washington Post in early October pointed out, the Republicans’ corruption undermined the effectiveness of the relief package. Only about one-fifth of the money, in fact, went to non-wealthy people.

And when the time came to renew and supplement that temporary package, Trump and the Republicans suddenly decided that they had done enough. Try as they might to complain about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the fact is that House Democrats put together a bill that would have put real money in the hands of struggling Americans, while Republicans complained of mythical “blue-state bailouts” and claimed to have become born-again fiscal hawks.

It is true, of course, that Republicans believe in trickle-down economics, which is the theory that showering money on businesses and rich people will eventually make everyone richer. But not only does that theory lack empirical support in economic studies, it is awkward at best to try to explain to voters.

The funniest attempt at this was a political advertisement that Republicans started running last week, showing a concerned woman thinking about her vote and saying to herself, “[The Democrats want] higher taxes on employers? My husband’s looking for work!”

Yes, the most jarring aspect of that ad is the blatant sexism, but the economics is actually pretty funny, too, in its own way. Republicans actually appear to believe that telling unemployed people that potential employers are the ones in need—even as Republicans deny things like anti-eviction protections for struggling Americans—is somehow a political winner.

In the end, then, the Republicans’ best strategy is apparently to hope that people will forget how unfair the economy was under Trump prior to the pandemic, that they will then forget how badly Trump and the Republicans have made the economy in the months since then, and finally that they will say, “Wow, some of the jobs that we lost are back, and if I had a 401(k), it would have grown!”

Maybe making up stories about Hunter Biden is the less bad choice after all.

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