The Plum Line

Between Trump and good economy, there’s a deep split in GOP messaging

(Evan Vucci/AP)
Opinion writer

Step back and marvel at this fact: The economy is in some ways doing as well as it has in decades, and yet not only are the president’s approval ratings around 42 percent and his party poised to suffer huge losses in the midterm election, they’re barely talking about the economy on the campaign trail.

As President Trump so eloquently put it in another context: What the hell is going on?

Today we got the latest job numbers, which show that 250,000 new jobs were created in October and the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7 percent. On one hand, this is just a continuation of the last couple of years of the Obama administration: Trump has now overseen the creation of 4.1 million jobs in his first 21 months in office, while 4.5 million were created in Barack Obama’s last 21 months in office. But on the other hand, which policies helped produce the results doesn’t much matter in politics; what matters is that the economy is doing well while Republicans are in charge.

Yet while Trump touts the good economic news regularly, and candidates do sometimes mention it, the economy is nothing like the centerpiece of the Republican campaign. What are they running on instead?

There are two deeply contradictory messages, and that contradiction encapsulates the problem they now face.

The first message, pitched to voters in liberal, swing and even some conservative districts and states, is this: “I’m kinda like a Democrat!” Republican candidates across the country are promising to protect people with preexisting conditions despite the fact that they’ve been trying to take those protections away for almost a decade and are still trying to as we speak. They’re saying Democrats are a threat to Medicare and Social Security. In other words, they want voters to believe that the GOP is caring, compassionate and committed to a strong role for government in protecting your welfare.

Spectacularly dishonest though that message may be, it has worked before. The problem, though, is that another message is competing for voters’ attention: the message of terror coming from the president and his allies in conservative media, all about how dark-skinned immigrants are coming to destroy your country and threaten your family.

If you look around, you see that those messages vary by district; while the pro-safety-net message dominates in most places, many Republicans are also mounting some pretty vile racist attacks against their opponents. The problem is that you can’t keep that stuff contained when the president is working hard to make the election about fear and hatred of nonwhites.

This gets to a fundamental feature of contemporary politics that was already true to a degree, but has been exacerbated by the Trump presidency. We used to say “All politics is local,” meaning that even senators and members of the House had to be concerned with local concerns: You can tell a voter that you worked on an arms control treaty, but if they can’t get the pothole in front of their house fixed, they’ll still be angry. Today, it’s almost the opposite: What’s happening at the national level affects every race down to the most local level.

It’s the result of party polarization and modern communication technology, since nobody can avoid national politics and we can learn quickly about what’s happening anywhere in the country. But it’s also about Trump. Not just because he’s a big personality who seizes the news agenda, but because his theory of politics is that the way for him to win is to be as outrageous and offensive as possible in order to make his enemies angry and his core supporters cheer.

There’s a common impulse to assume that if Trump has managed to make everyone talk about something he said or did, then that means he’s winning. He certainly believes it, but it isn’t necessarily true. All you have to do is look around at the swing districts, particularly those in the suburbs, where Republican candidates are trying to present themselves as moderate and reasonable but can’t do it because of the stream of bile coming from the Oval Office. Here’s how the New York Times describes the situation:

In Republican-leaning districts that include diverse populations or abut cities that do — from bulwarks of Sunbelt conservatism like Houston and Orange County, Calif., to the well-manicured bedroom communities outside Philadelphia and Minneapolis — the party is in danger of losing its House majority next week because Mr. Trump’s racially-tinged nationalism has alienated these voters who once made up a dependable constituency.

Democrats stand to make some of their most significant gains in districts like these, dominated by people who are doing well economically and, if given an ordinary Republican president, would be happy to vote for Republican members of Congress as an affirmation of their satisfaction. But they’re being repelled by Trump’s hateful white nationalism, and the closer we get to the election, the more Trump is ratcheting up precisely the rhetoric that is already driving these voters away. It’s hard to say you’re a sensible candidate when the leader of your party is fantasizing about gunning down asylum seekers.

All this shows that the bargain Republicans made when Trump got the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 contained the seeds of their party’s coming defeat. They said to themselves, “Sure, he’s a buffoon and a liar and a race-baiter. But he’ll bring out working-class white voters, and if we win, we’ll get the policies we want and a boatload of conservatives judges. It’ll work out fine.”

They were right about the policies and the judges, but they were wrong if they thought they could maintain the party’s identity as something that could be differentiated from Trump. He is the GOP now. That means that local candidates have to answer for him whether they want to or not, and young people are utterly disgusted by the party, a feeling they’ll carry with them for years or even decades.

And it means that even if the economy is doing well, Republicans can’t convince voters to give them credit for it. Imagine what will happen if there’s a downturn.

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