Why It’s NOT the Economy, Stupid

Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a web video entitled “Better Off Now.” According to NRCC communications director Matt Gorman, who was quoted in the accompanying press release, “November comes down to one question: Are Americans better off now than they were two years ago?” That might be what Republicans want, but it is not likely to be voters’ sole motivation as they cast their ballots.

According to Gorman, voters will “keep Republicans in the majority.” The economy certainly is good, and there is no reason to believe that will change before November.

Unemployment is down. Economic growth and consumer confidence are up. Even wages are starting to show some gains. But if the economy and the public’s satisfaction with it automatically translated into strong presidential approval numbers and gains for the president’s party, Donald Trump’s job approval would be well over 50 percent and House Republicans would be poised to gain seats.

That’s obviously not the case.

Republicans are going to lose House seats — likely two dozen or more — and Trump’s job approval sits in the 38 to 42 percent range, a reflection of his controversial presidency, style and character.

Although it is true that a bad economy is always fatal for the president’s party, a healthy economy doesn’t always translate into success for the party controlling the White House.

Plus, Trump’s agenda guarantees strong opposition from the left, which is now energized. More importantly, his style and behavior in office have cost him support among college-educated whites primarily because — rightly or wrongly — they see him as vulgar, untruthful, petty, mean-spirited, narcissistic and more interested in his own interests than in the country’s.

Unintended consequences

But there is another reason why the upbeat economic news isn’t boosting the president’s numbers: The public’s attention has turned elsewhere because most people are not nearly as worried about the economy as they once were.

If you think there is a touch of irony in this, you are correct.

The good economic numbers have allowed voters to turn their focus elsewhere, to issues that don’t benefit the Republicans as much as GOP strategists — and the NRCC — would like.

But don’t take my word for it.

Here is what the Pew Research Center concluded in January about the public’s priorities.

“The public’s improving economic outlook is reflected in its policy agenda for President Trump and Congress in the coming year. Economic issues — improving the job situation, strengthening the economy and reducing the budget deficit — are viewed as less important policy priorities than they were just a few years ago. “Other issues, which had been less prominent public priorities in the past, have grown in importance. The share of Americans saying that protecting the environment should be a top policy priority has increased 18 percentage points since 2010 (from 44% to 62%), and seven points in the past year alone.“Also in the past year, the shares saying that improving the nation’s transportation system and dealing with drug addiction should be top priorities have increased 13 points each (both from 36% to 49%).”

Proof in the polls

And there is more evidence. In the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies (Question No. 11) registered voters were given a handful of issues and asked to select two that they thought “will be the most important factor in deciding your vote.”

The most frequent response was “health care,” followed closely by “the economy and jobs,” “guns,” “taxes and spending” and “immigration.”

Two things stand out.

First, health care, not the economy, was the top response.

And second, no single response got even a quarter of all the responses as the top issue.

If the economy were poor, “the economy and jobs” would stand out dramatically as the top issue of concern. But because the economy is good, registered voters had a variety of concerns.

Finally, a third survey — this one at the district level — confirms the national numbers from Pew and NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

Take a Sept. 5-9 Monmouth University poll of Pennsylvania’s 7th District, a competitive, redrawn Lehigh Valley (Allentown) seat.

The top issue of the 401 voters questioned? Health care (30 percent), followed by immigration (21 percent). Job creation came in third (14 percent), followed by a resurgent “gun control” (13 percent).

Their best shot

Republicans from the White House to the Capitol can and should run on the economy since it is the best issue they have.

Voters who like the president can and will cite jobs, economic growth and the economy to explain their vote. But a majority of midterm voters are likely to view the election as about other things, from guns and health care to the president’s deep character flaws.

James Carville was correct in 1992 when he argued that Democrats should focus on “the economy, stupid.”

The United States had just passed through a short-lived but significant recession in 1990-91, and voters were worried about rising unemployment and weak economic growth. But that’s not the case today.

It is now apparent that Trump and the GOP will be punished in November in spite of the generally good economy, which is why I suggest modifying Carville’s comment to “It’s the economy, stupid — except when it isn’t.”

And it isn’t this year, because the economy is not a problem, which gives a majority of Americans the freedom to have other things on their minds. And many of those things have to do with Trump’s personal behavior, performance in office and broader agenda.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on September 18, 2018.

How Can the GOP Turn Out Trump Voters?

In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.

Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.

Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?

One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”

That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.

He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.

Firing up the base

Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.

Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.

Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.

Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?

“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.

Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”

These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.

There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.

Making lemonade

Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.

Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.

“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.

Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”

But things aren’t quite that clear.

Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.

Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.

A Bipartisan Health Care Bill Will Be Tougher to Pass than a Partisan One

The calls from Democrats and many in the media for a bipartisan health care bill are understandable. But a bipartisan plan is a very heavy lift for Congress – probably even heavier than a partisan one.

Almost everyone likes the sound of a “bipartisan approach.” It comes with connotations of compromise, reasonableness, moderation and sensitivity to all sides. In an era when voters distrust the parties and major institutions, “bipartisanship” automatically has special appeal.

But the two parties have such different values and priorities these days, it’s hard to see how and where they come together.

On health care, Republicans want to cut spending (so they can apply it to tax reform), eliminate government mandates, cut regulations and encourage the free market to provide ways to help Americans get health insurance and coverage, if they want it.

Democrats, on the other hand, are all about coverage, including an unalterable commitment to expanded Medicaid, even if it means more spending, more mandates and more regulations.

Yes, there are a handful of more moderate/pragmatic Senate Republican and Democrats who can rally around a short-term fix for the Affordable Care Act, and that’s a formula for passing something.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Bill Cassidy (Louisiana) have their own plan, while Democrats like Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Joe Donnelly (Indiana) and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) surely would be interested in signing onto a bipartisan approach.

But there are other factors that work strongly against a bipartisan plan.

Any bill that gets bipartisan support is almost certain to keep the architecture of Obamacare in place, and that’s a non-starter for many Republicans, who have just spent seven years promising to get rid of it.

The House must agree with any Senate bill, and the chances of House Republicans doing that are, well, small. If anything, the House GOP would like to move the Senate bill to the right, not to the left.

Even more important, the pressure on the House and Senate GOP leadership not to bring to the floor any bill that essentially leaves the ACA intact would be enormous.

Conservatives – and many Republicans – will argue that they control the House, the Senate and the White House and ask why Democrats are going to dictate the terms of any Obamacare re-write.

Can you imagine the name-calling and finger-pointing on Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Newsmax and One America News? Conservatives would accuse Republicans of selling out, and of caving in to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Conservative talk radio and TV would skewer McConnell and Ryan if they end up supporting a truly bipartisan compromise.

During his years as House speaker, John Boehner did bring a few bills to the floor that didn’t have a majority in his party but could (and did) pass the House. Would Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell do that?

Bipartisan approaches are possible on bipartisan issues. But Republicans and Democrats are light years apart on health care, the role of government and taxes – all of which are very much involved in the health care debate.

Anything is possible in Washington, D.C. But it would be naïve to think that a bipartisan health care plan will be easy to construct. Health care, as we learned from the president of the United States, is very complicated.

This piece was originally published by Inside Elections.