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Opinion The Democratic divide over battling Trump on the economy

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), a Democratic candidate for president, in Sioux City, Iowa, on Monday. (Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal via AP)

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that President Trump’s job approval is mired at 43 percent. But Trump’s approval on the economy is higher — 49 percent approve, compared to 46 percent who disapprove — which shows that even with all the talk of a possible recession, the economy could still give Trump an advantage as he seeks reelection.

But here’s an interesting nuance. NBC’s Mark Murray tweeted out some additional polling numbers, noting that of the sliver of voters who approve of Trump on the economy — but disapprove of his overall performance — a generic Democrat beats Trump by an astonishing 73 percent to 5 percent.

One way to view this is that it perhaps undermines one working Republican theory of 2020. This theory holds that even if the president has alienated lots of voters with his racism, his cruel treatment of migrant children, and his all around malevolence and depravity, it’s still possible Trump could get them back, if they end up deciding the economy is good for them, and then hold their nose and vote accordingly.

The voters in question here are probably the type of suburban and college-educated whites, mostly women, who defected from the Republican Party in 2018, even though they are relatively affluent and are doing well under Trump. The new NBC numbers suggest that the president could seriously struggle to get them back: As Ron Brownstein put it, Trump is facing massive defections among voters who are satisfied with the economy, to a degree perhaps unprecedented for an incumbent president.

Another way to view this is that there may be a sizable bloc of voters that likes the economy but doesn’t give Trump credit for it. In this scenario, the voters who say they approve of Trump on the economy — even as they disapprove of him overall — are basically registering their satisfaction with the economy but don’t necessarily see Trump or his policies as central to its performance. Multiple polls have found nontrivial numbers of such voters exist.

Remember, in 2018, Democrats won control of the House by campaigning against Trump’s failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his massive corporate tax cut — that is, by campaigning against Trump’s economic and kitchen-table policies. This enabled big gains for Democrats, even among voters who are relatively more affluent, though they won them largely by promising safe things such as preservation of the ACA’s protections for preexisting conditions.

The voters who approve of Trump on the economy, but disapprove of him overall, probably represent some kind of mix of those categories. Regardless, this sense of a bloc of swing voters of this kind is likely to shape the debate among Democrats over how to make the case against Trump in the general election.

So candidates who are more moderate on health care and the economy — especially former vice president Joe Biden — are likely to conclude that such voters can be won, in effect, by telling them they can keep the current economy without too much disruption from the left, and without having to endure Trump’s craziness and destructiveness any longer.

By contrast, the more populist Democrats — such as Elizabeth Warren, who is running on Medicare-for-all, taxing extreme wealth, and ambitious reforms which would restructure corporate governance to enhance worker power and create a new, progressive international trading order — will argue that the more careful approach is far too risky.

In that analysis, Trump won the “blue wall” Rust Belt states in 2016 by promising his own variety of far-reaching structural economic change — vowing to take on plutocratic elites and rip up trade deals that hollowed out the industrial heartland. This all turned out to be fraudulent but, if anything, that fraudulence, combined with Trump’s deep unpopularity, may be creating an unusual opening for a Democratic nominee to offer a genuine agenda of ambitious populist transformation, an opportunity that must not be squandered.

And because Trump won, in part, this way, Democrats now trying to skim voters by implicitly conceding that they shouldn’t want too much economic reform risks sending the wrong message: that voters should be sanguine about the current economy. That, in turn, risks the possibility that those voters will decide they should stick with the current president, despite their deep misgivings about him.

In a sense, the debate over which approach will work better against Trump doesn’t really have an obvious answer. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein explains, we’re really in the dark when it comes to electability questions, so predictions about what will work in a general election are a fool’s errand. So Democratic voters should opt for the agenda they prefer on the substance. Regardless, this divide is likely to play out in the debates over electability and over how to combat Trump on the economy alike.

Of course, if we do tip into recession, all of this goes out the window and this whole divide will be upended completely.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s scam is failing him, and he’s in a panic over it

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s economic record is one big con

James Downie: The Trump economic team: Men without a plan

Paul Waldman: Could managing the economy be more complicated than Donald Trump thought?