The Corner

Economy & Business

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

President Donald Trump speaks about trade at the Granite City Works steel coil warehouse in Granite City, Illi., July 26, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters )

Right now, only 12 percent of Americans cite the economy as the most important issue facing the country.

This reminded me of a point I wanted to make last week. The latest episode of the The Editors is really excellent, even if the accelerated time vortex of our news cycle may make it seem a bit outdated if you haven’t listened to it yet. But there’s one thing I’d like to argue with, a little.

Luke Thompson, a brilliant political consultant, says that Trump isn’t benefitting from the good economy. I probably shouldn’t single-out Luke for two reasons: First, he knows more about the mechanics of politics and polling than I ever will. and, second, because he’s hardly alone. This observation is all over the place.

I just figured The Editors could use the plug.

But here’s the thing: Who says Trump isn’t benefitting from the economy? Think of the alternative: What if the economy was a disaster right now? Would his approval rating be the same? Higher? Lower? I’m inclined to think it would be even worse.

A better question than “Why isn’t Trump benefitting from the good economy?” would be “Why isn’t he benefitting more?” And here I agree with most of my colleagues: Because of all the drama.

But I also think the good economy could be hurting the GOP in some interesting ways.

I have always hated the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” because it wasn’t even true when James Carville said it (this was just one of three central messaging priorities to the 1992 campaign), and it’s certainly not an iron law of American politics. (My old boss, Ben Wattenberg, demonstrated that almost 50 years ago in The Real Majority.) The economy is a big issue — and often the most important one — if the economy is going badly (in 2009, 86 percent of Americans ranked it first). But if the economy is going really well, that doesn’t necessarily crowd out all other issues: It can also create a vacuum where other issues can rush in to fill the political void. The trick — and it can be a difficult one — is to keep the economy as the central issue, if you can take credit for it. If you need to bring up cultural or social issues, it should be part of a larger strategy of reinforcing the idea that we need to stay the course. Bill Clinton did this remarkably well going into the 1996 election.

I don’t think I’m in danger of exaggeration when I say that Donald Trump lacks the message discipline to do something similar. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the most important issue for Americans is government itself (29 percent).

As Gallup makes clear, this is not entirely about Donald Trump. Conservatives are mad at Democrats and liberals for obstructing the president, etc. But even when framed that way, that’s a tough message for many Republicans because they’re in charge. In purplish districts, swing voters hate the dysfunction, and base conservatives hate what they see as ineffectual efforts to own the libs. I am at a loss to see how this underlying dynamic can change in the next 50 or so days.

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