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.

The Wrong Fight at the Wrong Time for the GOP

You need to hand it to President Donald Trump, his entire administration and his party. It takes more than a little chutzpah to act in a way that seems callous to the concerns of children. First, it was gun control. Now it is immigration in general, and separating children from their parents in particular. If this is the way to winning the midterms, it’s hard to see how.

Republicans have talked for decades about crime, drugs, national security, traditional values, the dangers associated with big government and helping businesses produce economic growth.

GOP candidates are comfortable talking about those themes during campaigns, and the party’s voters have become accustomed to hearing those issues addressed.

Democrats, on the other hand, have talked more about quality-of-life issues, the environment, health care, gun control and helping the more disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, including the poor, the elderly, single mothers and children. Democratic voters expect their candidates to stress those topics and offer prescriptions.

At certain moments, Republican priorities have broader appeal, while at other times the Democratic message has been shown to be superior.

Not surprisingly, swing voters go back and forth between the two parties, depending on the issue mix and the country’s priorities, and enthusiasm within both parties ebbs and flows.

Fall focus

If this November’s elections are about the state of the economy, Republicans will do quite well. Most of the economic indicators are good, and while things could change over the next few months, they are not likely to deteriorate dramatically.

Republicans would likely keep the House and Senate if the midterms were only a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy.

But the economy isn’t dominating voters’ attention these days.

The June 1-4 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked registered voters about the “most important factor in deciding your vote” and found five issues bunched together in the double digits: health care; economy and jobs; guns; taxes and spending; and immigration.

In tough economic times (whether high unemployment or high inflation), the economy and jobs inevitably rank far ahead of other concerns because people think first about putting food on the table and paying the mortgage.

But today, when jobs are relatively plentiful and Americans feel upbeat about the economy, people have time to think about other issues and problems — such as health care, gun control and how people should be treated.

Now, after spending the last couple of years demonizing immigrants, fighting those who advocate more diversity, ripping up government regulations, cutting taxes for corporate America and doing little to respond to a series of school-related shootings, President Donald Trump doubled down on immigration, producing a “zero tolerance” policy that meant separating children from their parents, before backtracking on Wednesday with an executive order after the uproar penetrated even the Oval Office’s usual political calculus.

Core Trump voters — the kind of people who watch the Fox News prime-time lineup religiously and complain that members of the national media are the enemy — are certain to accept White House positions on the border and agree with congressional Republicans on guns.

But core Trump voters won’t decide control of the House in the midterms.

Quinnipiac’s widely noted June 14-17 national poll showed two out of three voters opposing the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when families illegally cross the border.

The numbers among independent voters (68 percent opposing separation), whites with a college degree (68 percent opposing) and white women (65 percent opposing) suggest the White House badly mishandled the issue, and it’s not hard to see why Trump started backpedaling.

Even more than one in three Republicans disapprove of the administration’s behavior.

Misjudging the mood

If reports are correct that Trump thought the “zero tolerance” policy would help him politically, he seems to have miscalculated badly. There is nothing wrong with a president seeking to energize his party’s base. But that is all that Trump ever does.

He never tries to broaden his appeal. The controversy over separating children from their parents, like the White House’s response to school shootings, helps push quality of life to the fore of this election cycle, taking voters’ attention away from the economy.

Trump and his party look cruel and cold-hearted, costing the Republicans female voters, suburbanites, independents and voters with a college degree — and that’s before Democrats spend millions of dollars painting the picture of a president and a political party indifferent to school shootings and insensitive to the plight of children.

Combined with likely improved turnout among liberals and possibly even minorities and younger voters (who often don’t bother to vote in midterms), the movement among swing voters and soft Republicans seems like a recipe for a remarkably good Democratic election.

Trump would be much better off talking about his role in creating jobs and starting a dialogue with North Korea.

But the president, who appears tone-deaf when it comes to quality-of-life issues such as guns, health care and the environment, simply prefers spending his time fighting with America’s friends, imposing tariffs, pushing his immigration agenda and attacking the FBI and Robert Mueller.

And regardless of any presidential or congressional action, the damage to the GOP has already been done.

History suggests Republicans will pay an electoral price in the fall.

Note: This column appeared originally in Roll Call on June 21, 2018

How a Tweet Got Me in Trouble

Almost two months ago, in early August, I wrote a tweet that generated plenty of reaction – little or none of it positive. New York Post Columnist Salena Zito even used it to write a column about how reporters view working-class voters.

The only problem is that Salena, like others, took the tweet completely out of context and therefore didn’t understand what I meant.

The tweet – “Lots of people can’t support themselves or speak English in West Virginia” – certainly could sound like a gratuitous shot at West Virginia or at the less educated and less affluent. But not if you knew the context.

Here is what happened:
I often “live tweet” Donald Trump’s rallies and speeches, and that’s exactly what I was doing on August 3rd. (When there is a significant live event, I see Twitter as a communal activity, as if a bunch of people are sitting around, watching a sporting event and making comments about it.)

Usually, I quote the president, but sometimes I simply offer a comment or response to something he says, figuring those watching along with me will get my point. Twitter allows only 140 characters, after all, and it’s difficult to quote a lengthy sentence and also add a comment.

In this case, my “controversial” tweet followed Trump’s comments about immigrants and his plan to restrict their entry into the United States.

Here is what the president said at his West Virginia rally: “Our plan favors applicants who can speak English, who can support themselves financially, and who demonstrate valuable skills that will strengthen our economy.” (You can see the speech and audience reaction on a C-SPAN video at about 38 minutes into his speech.)

 

As soon as Trump uttered those comments, I turned his words around and tweeted “Lots of people can’t support themselves or speak English in West Virginia.”

My point, of course, was that many of the people at that rally, and in the state, are not all that different from the immigrants hoping to come to the United States.

The president was talking about excluding people who might need a government handout in a state where many also need a government handout. (West Virginia ranks 48th in household personal income.) And Trump was prepared to discriminate against immigrants who don’t have command of English in a state that ranks 42nd in percentage of high school graduates.

The irony of the situation apparently was lost on Trump, his supporters at the rally and many who read my tweet, including too many who had no idea what the president had said or how my tweet played off his remarks.

My Twitter mistake was in not understanding that people might read my tweet without knowing how and why it came about. For some, of course, even understanding the context of the tweet wouldn’t matter. They simply wanted to find some reason to be offended and outraged, a hook on which to hang their virulent anti-Semitic insults.

I will try to be clearer in the future when I tweet, but anyone who uses Twitter knows that it is impossible to make a serious argument in 140 characters. The platform simply is not suited for that. I try to be entertaining (often using sarcasm) even when I point out hypocrisy or make a political point, and I do not expect that will change. So, my advice to anyone following my tweets: Follow along and lighten up.