Politics & Policy

The Economy, Father of Us All

President Donald Trump on stage at a campaign rally in Panama City, Fla., May 8, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Good times immunize a president and make his over-the-top domestic enemies look irrelevant.

Each week we are warned of a recession. And each week the economic news “unexpectedly” and “surprisingly” improves or stays steady — in ways well aside from the staples of continued near-record-low peacetime unemployment (3.8 percent), near-record-low minority unemployment, booming annualized GDP (3.1 percent), and a record-high stock market.

In June, retail sales increased for the fourth straight month. The rate of Hispanic home ownership continues to increase. A quarter-million new jobs were created in June, with strong growth in construction and manufacturing. Record oil and gas production seems only to keep increasing. Strong wage growth of 3.4 percent continues.

The point is not so much “It’s the economy, stupid,” but rather that the economy is the font of all contemporary politics, and it adjudicates the parameters of presidential prerogatives.

In the standoff between the “Squad” and Donald Trump, near-record peacetime unemployment in general and in particular historic-low minority unemployment argue against the idea that Trump is racist.

Polls suggest that Donald Trump may well win a greater share of the minority vote than moderates John McCain and Mitt Romney — largely because of a raise in middle-class wages in a tight labor market, and new leverage of entry-level workers over labor-hungry employers. Do working-class blacks and Hispanics suffer then from false consciousness, and do they need tutorials from progressive grandees so they won’t be so incorrect as to appreciate having more jobs at better pay?  Racists do not craft economic policies that empower African Americans far more so than those promoted by the first African-American president.

Ditto the entire failure of the destroy-Trump agenda, whether exemplified by the Mueller exoneration and the absurd appeals to the Logan Act, the emoluments clause, and 25th Amendment. What saved Bill Clinton from conviction after impeachment in 1998 was the lockstep voting of Democratic senators in the minority, which prevented a two-third conviction vote in the Senate and the consequent removal from office of the overseer of a booming economy. The reason Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving Israeli prime minister and has survived every sort of personal and ideological attack is that he reengineered the Israeli economy and offered unprecedented prosperity to his constituents. Such shared bounty short-circuited his critics.

The subtext of the failure of all the Trump impeachment hysterias was not merely that they were based on emotional narratives rather than evidence and facts — empiricism has never been the forte of congressional frenzies — but that the public believed either that the removal of a successful president would stall the economic expansion or that it might show ingratitude for a domestic job well done. Democrats seems to have forgotten that voters are most interested in the economy — along with illegal immigration — and least concerned with their obsessions with climate change and the Green New Deal.

Booming times provide Trump the latitude to tweet incessantly, and to editorialize on contemporary dramas, from Colin Kaepernick’s take-a-knee movement to the so-called Squad of incoming hard-left congressional representatives. Had we suffered zero growth and high unemployment, Trump’s enemies would have had some traction in their demands that he quiet down and focus on the economy. Successful economies are like successful wars: Everyone wants ownership, much as defeats and recessions are orphans.

If the U.S. was in a 1–2 percent GDP growth cycle, as in the prior decade, then calling out China for technological appropriation, patent and copyright infringement, dumping, mercantilism, and currency manipulation, well aside from human-rights abuses, might be little more than the usual, shrill hectoring, coupled with corporate indifference to the vast Chinese trade surplus. Only strong economic growth, energy security, and low employment allow the U.S. to square off against Chinese reckless behavior — a fact well known to Beijing, which enjoyed exemption from presidential criticism given that the decade-long anemic U.S. economy never reached 3 percent annualized growth.

If the U.S. was not the world’s largest producer of gas and oil, and soon to be its largest exporter, then we might never have dared to vacate the Iran deal, or might have panicked in fear of world oil prices skyrocketing after each cycle of Iran’s scripted braggadocio.

The same calculus holds true of squabbles with NATO friends in arrears, and with enemies such as an unhinged North Korea. The U.S. can jawbone for symmetry because it currently enjoys the most well-rounded economy in the world and therefore assumes that it is finally in a strong position to redress long-standing paradoxes. These include our closest allies’ reluctance to pay for their collective defense against enemies far nearer to their borders than to ours, and the absurdity that a premodern society found the capital and expertise to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear payloads.

The point is again not to reduce all politics to the status of the economy. Rather, the chance to have a good job, good wages, economic growth, low inflation, low interest, a strong stock market, plentiful and reasonably priced gas, and the opportunity to save money are the stuff of life and are what voters most care about. In comparison, what AOC or Ilhan Omar says is mostly irrelevant, as is the most recent bombast abroad from an Iranian theocrat, a Russian functionary, or a Maoist in China. George W. Bush was recovering somewhat after the successful surge in Iraq until the September 2008 financial meltdown destroyed his presidency and ensured a Democratic successor. The beloved Obama was wiped out in two midterm elections and nearly defeated in 2012 largely because the natural recovery from the 2008 collapse turned out to be not much of a recovery at all.

About the only events that overshadow a good economy and threaten to destroy a reelection bid or a second term in boom times are unpopular wars such as Vietnam or the second Iraq War, or a major scandal (well beyond Iran-Contra or Benghazi) that leads to real convictions, as in Watergate.

In Trump’s case, there is little likelihood he is going to start an optional war such as Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, or face a second round of the collusion/obstruction Mueller onslaught. Indeed, the more likely narrative for 2020 is that Trump will stay reactive, not become preemptive, if tensions with Iran or North Korea lead to violence.

Likewise, any federal indictments are far more apt to focus on the probable illegal behavior of James Comey, James Clapper, Andrew McCabe, and John Brennan — as well as functionaries that Hillary Clinton/the DNC/the Perkins-Coie law firm, and Glenn Simpson’s Fusion GPS hired to subvert the 2016 Trump campaign effort.

Just as good times immunize a president, so too bad recessions infect him. One reason AOC’s Green New Deal is rightly acknowledged as unhinged is that Trump’s conventional economy is robust. If it were not, then her anti-Trump oppositional nonsense might fool millions into thinking she made sense — as in the first year of the Obama administration, when silly Solyndra “green” agendas were pushed through in the aftermath of the 2008 disaster and billed as a new way out of the doldrums.

Finally, few question whether it’s right or wrong to credit a president for booms, and blame him for busts. Instead, by acclamation, he just is held culpable for everything on his watch. The Iron Rule of American politics is that the president, from his first day to his last in office, takes the credit or blame — even for larger economic trends, blunders, and unforeseen disasters rooted in events outside the reach of his own tenure. Poor Herbert Hoover was sworn into office on March 4, 1929, and yet was blamed for Black Friday, October 24, 1929 — the proverbial beginning of a ten-year depression ended only by rearmament for a looming world war — as if Hoover had time in just seven months to do much of anything.

In sum, if Trump continues the good times, his tweets are irrelevant. If he does not, these electronic riffs suddenly will be said to be windows into his supposedly dark soul.

Contrarily, the more the economy hums along, the more ridiculous the obsessive “Get Trump” fixations become. But if recession looms before 2020, then suddenly the weirder the progressive obsessions with destroying Trump, the more likely they will resonate.

For now, Democratic charges that Trump is supposedly like no other president in his callousness are ignored because Trump’s booming economy is factually like no other recent president’s in its vigor.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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