It’s the economy, stupid. And the coronavirus. And the riots. And, above all, it’s about Trump. Know that, and you will know a great deal about the state of political play in America, and about the coming presidential election.
Presidents generally get the credit for a strong economy. Trump planned a campaign based on an economy with record-low unemployment and record-high share prices. He had a reasonable claim to credit for that performance. His tax cuts stimulated growth, even if not as much as advocates of that cut expected, and his roll-back of the over-blown regulatory state he inherited unleashed the private sector’s slumbering animal spirits.
But presidents also get the blame for a weak economy – witness the failure of George H. W. Bush to beat back the 1992 challenge to his re-election from Bill Clinton, the member of the Clinton family who possessed the total supply of his family’s political nous. The coronavirus made its devastating appearance, the doctors were elevated from policy advisers to policy makers, and the booming economy gave way to a shuttered one. Instead of presiding over a boom, Trump found himself defending his belated reaction to the disease that was sickening millions of Americans and would kill more than 100,000.
Worse, his decision to appear on television every day to report on progress, real and imagined, in his fight to control the spread of the disease proved disastrous. He revealed his most unappealing characteristics: an only casual acquaintance with the truth; ignorance combined with self-confidence; administrative ineptitude that left the country short of the tools with which to confront the disease; and a self-centered need to attack opponents, often in vulgar terms.
Then came the protests and riots. Thousands turned out to peacefully protest what the charge sheet calls the police murder of George Floyd, and fewer thousands to riot and loot. The result has been horrifying images of a nation on the verge of insurrection, authorities unable to control the streets that the President urged them to “dominate”. Trump’s reaction included an inept photo op holding a bible aloft, hollow-sounding statements of sympathy, and positioning himself as a “law and order” president, a strategy used by Richard Nixon 50 years ago to win the White House. All in all, a performance that might have pleased his core voters who account for about 40% of the electorate, but appalled the suburban women who were already upset by his undignified, unpresidential behavior, and whose support Trump needs in key battleground states.
And is not getting. Former vice president Joe Biden leads in national polls by between 7% and 11%. It is widely believed that these and other polls tilt toward Biden because Trump supporters, demonized by the media, refuse to respond. Besides, national polls are not terribly significant. Recall: Hillary Clinton received almost three million more votes nation-wide than Trump in 2016, but lost because he won 304 votes in the electoral college to her 227. Broadly, she won the coasts while he won the nation’s heartland, the electoral college and the presidency.
More important are polls in the battleground states. The Real Clear Politics June 3 average of polls, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, show Biden ahead in Arizona (+4 percentage points), Florida (+3.5), Michigan (+5.5), and Wisconsin (+2.7), all states that Trump carried in 2016. These states account for 86 electoral college votes – Trump beat Clinton by 77. In other polls Biden also leads in Ohio (+2), a state with 18 electoral college votes that Trump took by 8 points in 2016. Every time a Republican has lost Ohio, he has lost the presidency. Perhaps worst of all, a Quinnipiac Poll has Trump in a statistical tie with Biden, 44% to 43%, in Texas, which Trump won by 9 points in 2016.
Some things are already cast in concrete. Trump has said that he is “basically the same” as he was in first grade, so at 73 he is unlikely to change his behavior. The reaction of the virus to the re-opening is whatever it will be. Should re-openings trigger a resurgence of COVID-19, Democrats would benefit in two ways. The President would appear recklessly insensitive to the health effects of re-opening, and the role of the private sector would be diminished as a force for recovery, leaving the nation increasingly dependent on the government relief efforts that are the Democrats’ stock in trade.
The only known unknowns are the results of the presidential debates, the first of which is scheduled for September 29, and whether the economy will show significant signs of recovering by the time voters mark their early ballots. Limited early voting opens in some states late in September – only something more than 100 days hence — and 60% of voters plan to cast ballots before November 3rd.
The debates will be decided on a which-is-worse basis, Trump’s cringe-inducing behavior or Biden’s gaffes. Trump’s behavior has been on full display for over three years, so he has little to lose on this score. Biden’s gaffes, well known to those who follow politics closely, have been concealed from the general public by the fact that the stay-home orders have forced him to isolate in his basement, rather than out on the campaign trail. His campaign team seems not unhappy with the result. “When a guy [Trump] is digging his own grave, you don’t fight him for the shovel”, said a Democratic operative in defense of Biden’s low profile.
As for the economy, it seems to be moving in a direction favourable to the President. Rather than dropping by 8 million, as forecasters predicted, the number of jobs increased by 2.5 million in May. The unemployment rate, 13.3%, remains appalling, but fell far short of the predicted 20% and dropped from 15.7% in April. The number counted in this report as unemployed, 21.0 million, remains depressing, but it is 2.1 million lower than April’s figure.
“Stupendous, joyous, a stunner,” chortled Trump, understandably ignoring some negative aspects of the full report. He has reason to claim some credit. After all, he is the man who pushed often-reluctant state and local authorities to re-open their economies, often over the objections of Democrats who have an interest in having the economy remain at depression levels until November.
Talk of a V-shaped recovery may be overly optimistic, but at minimum the economy does not seem to be going to L.