White House

Will the Economy Trump the President’s Behavior?

President Trump speaks on tax reform at the Sheffer Corporation in Blue Ash, Ohio, February 5, 2018. Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
An uptick in the polls for Trump and the GOP could be the harbinger of another shocker like 2016.

Trump scandals aren’t a once-a-week phenomenon.

This week began under the cloud of the debate over dueling House Intelligence Committee memos about the origins of the Russia-collusion investigation. Then the president referred to the refusal of congressional Democrats to stand to applaud his State of the Union speech as “treason.”

And before the outrage over that had had time to die down, the White House was under siege again over domestic-abuse accusations against Staff Secretary Rob Porter. Porter resigned, but senior officials had known of these claims before they were aired publicly, and the White House’s failure to fire Porter promptly was seen as proof once again of the incompetence of the administration and, by extension, the unfitness for office of the president. CNN and MSNBC raked over the controversy ad nauseam, to the virtual exclusion of any other news.

It’s been this way since Trump took office last year. The steady stream of negative stories about the administration would give any viewer or reader the impression not only that Trump is failing spectacularly but also that Democrats are headed for a midterm landslide in November, in which they’ll at least retake the House. Indeed, that’s what the polls were indicating throughout most of 2017.

But it appears this belief — seemingly shared by partisans on both sides of the aisle — might be wrong.

Trump’s numbers have been on the rise in the last several weeks. His approval ratings were in the 30 percent range for months, but at the moment the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows them at 42 percent. That still puts him underwater (with a 54 percent unfavorable rating), but the gap is the smallest it has been in months. The fact that he is creeping close to the break-even mark in some of the surveys is a clear sign that the continuous drumbeat of negative stories isn’t indicative of the direction of public opinion.

The same thing is happening with polls asking which party Americans plan to vote for in the upcoming midterms. Democrats are tightly concentrated on the two coasts and in urban areas, while Republicans are spread out more evenly throughout the country, so only a huge lead for the Democrats in the generic polling would be enough to indicate their ability to sweep swing districts and win a House majority — and that’s exactly what we saw in the latter half of 2017 amid Trump’s behavior and the GOP Congress’s inability to pass major legislation. But a 13-point Democratic lead in December has dwindled to a mere six-point lead in the latest RCP average of polls. If that number held until November, it would probably not be enough to produce a Democratic majority.

How is it possible for a president and a party that are so widely reviled in the media to gain ground?

The most obvious explanation is that the tax-reform bill passed by Congress in December isn’t the disaster for the Republicans that Democrats predicted. Coupled with what even the New York Times called a surge in business optimism and what was, until the last week, a booming stock market, there is a growing sense that the economy is an asset to the GOP rather than a liability.

Not even the wild volatility in stock prices in the last several days is enough to convince most economists — liberal or conservative — that the country’s finances are in real trouble. The combination of the tax cuts and Trump’s rollback of Obama’s regulatory overkill has created a good atmosphere for investment. Even more important, it seems to be producing a genuine rise in wages, which, along with the extra money in paychecks from lower taxes, is giving voters the idea that Trump knows what he’s doing on the economy.

But there may be another, even more fundamental explanation for the shift in the numbers. Though Washington and the chattering classes are transfixed by the search for Russia collusion and by Trump’s gaffes and scandals, most Americans may not be as fascinated with these subjects as the liberal media would like them to be.

To say this is not to rationalize or apologize for Trump’s often shocking behavior or the administration’s errors. But enough voters ignored the intellectual consensus to give Trump an Electoral College majority, and the same thing might happen for Republicans in the midterms this year.

Perhaps James Carville was correct in his classic observation that the only issue people care about is ‘the economy, stupid.’

That flies in the face of the many stories about voter remorse and the common belief that the bad behavior that was accepted in a candidate would be rejected if it came from a president. More important, it contradicts the underlying assumption of much of the media’s coverage of Trump: that his conduct is not merely disqualifying but the only thing the public could possibly care about. Instead, perhaps James Carville was correct in his classic observation that the only issue people care about is “the economy, stupid.”

But on the other hand, in the age of social media, bread-and-butter issues might always be overwhelmed by the meme of the day and Twitter controversies. The same medium that Trump has exploited so skillfully could be obscuring straight-news stories on the economy and the war against ISIS that make his administration and the Republicans look good.

Republicans shouldn’t get giddy about a few weeks of good polls. Trump’s stock-market boasts came back to haunt him this week, a reminder that betting on such trends’ continuing makes the GOP a hostage to fortune.

But if the uptick in the polls is really the result of public approval for a rising economy, then Carville’s rule may still apply — and the assumption that the midterms will be a referendum on Trump’s awful behavior may be mistaken.

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