Trump Ignores “It’s The Economy, Stupid,” In Favor Of Stoking Culture War Fires
Despite the relatively strong economy, President Trump and many other Republicans are relying on the politics of fear to drive voter turnout on Tuesday.
In an ordinary election year, the President in power and his party would be emphasizing the good things about their time in office. In the case of President Trump, that would arguably be the state of the economy as revealed by a number of recent economic statistics. Last week, for example, we learned that Gross Domestic Product had, according to the Commerce Department’s first estimate, grown at the annualized rate of 3.5% in the third quarter of the year. This follows on a second quarter during which the G.D.P. had grown at the rate of 4.2% for the period from April through June. Yesterday, the Labor Department issued a Jobs Report showing that the economy had added a quarter million new jobs, a report that also showed the topline unemployment rate remained at 3.7%, a number unseen since 1969, and that wages seemed to be finally growing after more than a year of stagnation. In addition to this, other economic statistics, such as consumer and wholesale inflation and other numbers, suggest that the economy remains in good shape in the ninth year of what has become the second-longest period of economic expansion since we started keeping such statistics.
While there are several caveats with respect to all of these numbers, for the most part these are positive numbers that an incumbent party ought to be pointing to in an effort to maintain its hold on power or at least stem the tide of a move toward the opposition. Instead of taking James Carville’s famous advice that “It’s the economy, stupid,” though, President Trump and the Republicans can’t seem to help themselves from ignoring the good economic news in favor of inflammatory issues that seem as likely to motivate opposition voters as they are to motivate the base to head to the polls on Tuesday:
In normal political times, a glowing report on the nation’s economy just before Election Day would be a gift to the party in power and a uniform talking point for its candidates. But entering the final weekend before Tuesday’s midterm vote, President Trump’s blistering message of nativist fear has become the dominant theme of the campaign’s last days, threatening to overshadow the good economic news.
This is a political bind Republicans did not envision. They spent the final months of 2017 working on a package of sweeping tax cuts they hoped could be the centerpiece of their 2018 campaign message, buttressed by a soaring stock market and a low unemployment rate. And they got what they wanted, passing a $1.5 trillion tax bill last December.
A new jobs report released Friday highlighted the continued strength of the economy, as employers added about 250,000 jobs in October while the unemployment rate remained at 3.7 percent, a nearly 50-year low.
But Mr. Trump, again, has upended the traditional political playbook. Candidates are frequently forced to answer for his inflammatory and baseless tweets. And at the political rallies that are becoming a daily event as the election draws closer, the president has waded into racially fraught waters, using a broad brush to paint immigrants as villainous and dangerous.
“They all say, ‘Speak about the economy, speak about the economy,” Mr. Trump said Friday, during a rally in West Virginia. “Well, we have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”
On the campaign trail, Republican candidates have taken a split-screen approach to Mr. Trump’s nationalist message; many, recognizing its political potency with the conservative base, are continuing to embrace it.
Democrats have “open borders psychosis,” Kris Kobach, the hard-right Republican candidate for governor in Kansas, told a crowd in Kansas City, Mo., during a rally on Friday with Vice President Mike Pence. Earlier in the day, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas began a stump speech by boasting about the economy, but quickly shifted to a more foreboding theme closely aligned to Mr. Trump’s warnings about a migrant “invasion.”
“You mean the people of Texas want to stop the caravan?” bellowed Mr. Cruz, who is in a competitive, closely watched race against Beto O’Rourke, the fiery, youthful Democrat. The crowd responded with chants of “build the wall.”
[S]ome Republicans — and the voters who support them — have said Mr. Trump’s explicit language mirrors their own beliefs.
“The radical left is on the move,” said Representative Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican facing a tough re-election campaign in a suburban swing district, who also appeared at the rally with Mr. Pence. “They’re on the march. And this radical left is based on socialism.”
Not all Republican candidates for Congress, the Senate, or state-level offices are following Trump’s lead, of course. In many parts of the country, there are Republican candidates running for office who are barely mentioning Trump at all, and who are instead pointing to the strong economy and the tax cut package passed last December in support of their own election and re-election bids. Even in those races, though, President Trump looms as the 800lb gorilla in the room. Even if you try to ignore him, he’s still there and people are still going to notice him and be influenced, for good or ill, by what he says and does. This is especially true given the fact that the President is making sure that he stays in the public eye and on the news via both his Twitter feed and his ambitious schedule of campaign rallies. While those rallies are specifically aimed at helping candidates in specific states, the fact that they get coverage in the national media means that they are just as likely to influence voters, for good or ill, in other parts of the country. This is part of the reason why Congressional candidates such as Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, David Brat in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, and Leonard Lance in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, all of whom should be coasting to re-election in an ordinary midterm year, are finding themselves in competitive races and in danger of losing on Tuesday.
No doubt, Trump is being told by advisers that he should be talking more about the economy and less about hot-button issues that have the potential for motivating the opposition as they do of motivating the base, but it’s also fairly clear that Trump is not listening to that advice. Given what we know about his temperament, this isn’t at all surprising. Throughout the campaign, there were reports that people close to him advising him to deemphasize his immigration bashing, or to tone down his rhetoric, and most analysts outside the campaign, myself included, believed that in the end his rhetoric, reputation, and behavior would end up being his downfall. He ignored all that advice, of course, and ended up winning the election. This likely only served to reinforce his belief that his own instincts are better than any advice he might be getting from others and, in this case, he has convinced himself that the best strategy is to rely on the politics of division, xenophobia, lies, and fear. Trump and those who are following in his footsteps obviously believe that they can get more people to the polls by relying on the politics of fear than they can by pointing to things like a strong economy as reasons why voters should not change horses in mid-stream. We’ll find out on Tuesday night whether he’s right or not.