Which points to a crucial 2020 dynamic: If anything is still keeping Trump within range of winning through a real comeback, a major polling error or outright cheating, it’s his lingering advantage on the economy.
Can the former vice president eliminate or neutralize that advantage?
Biden is set to roll out a new economic agenda designed to do just this. It should also prompt a reconsideration of another big question: how vulnerable Trump has made himself by thoroughly selling out on the “populist economic nationalism” he ran on in 2016.
The new Biden policies have their own economic nationalist bent: one is a 10 percent penalty surtax on any products manufactured overseas for sales back in the United States. Another is a tax credit for companies that invest in creating jobs here by, say, revitalizing a closed facility or moving jobs back home.
I want to focus less on the policy details than on the broader story Biden is telling.
Trump’s great betrayal
Trump ran in 2016 as a different kind of Republican who would use the power of government to protect people vulnerable to the degradations of unchecked global capitalism. Once in office, Trump either entirely abandoned that promise (embracing GOP plutocracy via a massive corporate tax cut and a drive to repeal health coverage for millions) or made a hash of it through destructive, impulsive incompetence (his disastrous trade wars).
Biden, by contrast, will do what Trump didn’t: Use active, interventionist government to actually create jobs and rebuild U.S. manufacturing capacity. While there’s no question the left deserves credit in pushing Biden in this direction, his broader agenda has proved unexpectedly progressive.
“This flips the tables,” Jared Bernstein, a progressive economist and outside adviser to the Biden campaign, told me. “It doesn’t just block incentives to send jobs overseas; it creates new ones to create jobs here.”
The new policies “say that Biden will actually and aggressively pursue good jobs here in America while Trump pretended to do that,” Bernstein continued. “It’s the difference between reality and reality TV.”
One big question, though, is whether the voters in question will agree that Trump “pretended” to pursue good jobs, i.e. that he failed economically. In addition to Biden’s need to energize the Democratic base, two baskets of voters are being battled over here: relatively affluent suburbanites who are moderately GOP-leaning on economics but dislike Trump’s racism, depravity and incompetence, and swingy non-college-educated Whites whose hopes for a “blue-collar boom” have been dashed.
The first of these are already so alienated from Trump on so many grounds that they may be less likely to reconsider Trump based on the economy. They might also find Biden’s aura of moderation reassuring.
The second group is the key. Trump’s hopes in Pennsylvania — and in the industrial Midwest generally — may turn on running up huge margins in towns such as Ambridge, in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania along the Ohio River, the sort of place that expected a Trumpian revitalization of blue-collar White America.
But as Shawn Donnan showed in a terrific report on Ambridge, places like this are not seeing that blue-collar boom. Trump’s trade wars have contributed to a recession in U.S. manufacturing. Indeed, Donnan reports, as of July there were 24,000 fewer Pennsylvanians employed in manufacturing than when Trump took office, and Ambridge’s county — Beaver — has double digit unemployment.
Then there’s the novel coronavirus. The question is whether Trump’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic will allow for a broader critique of his economic performance to sink in.
“Trump is, or really was, a master of fostering the false impression he was working for working people,” Bernstein told me. “With covid, he can no longer manage that charade, especially with Biden rolling out policies that actually would help onshore good jobs.”
What is Trump running on?
Ask yourself this: What actual concrete answers is Trump offering right now? He’s mainly declaring the coronavirus a purely accidental intervention — a meteor striking from space. He had built the greatest economy in the known universe before, he played no role in the coronavirus’s carnage other than miraculously vanquishing it, and he will now magically rebuild the stupendous Trump economy a second time.
That’s all baloney: Trump largely inherited the good pre-coronavirus economy. His “populist economic nationalism” didn’t deliver. His initial coronavirus failures were largely responsible for the need for such a strict initial shutdown. His urging of a premature reopening led to a second economic pullback.
But even beyond all this, what is Trump promising on the economy, exactly? As Paul Krugman documents, the economic misery due to his failure to agree to another generous rescue package is mounting. That’s a victory for the very same conservative economic orthodoxy Trump campaigned against, making this yet another betrayal.
And all Trump is really offering now is an empty vow to rekindle his own magic in creating the stupendous pre-coronavirus economy — which is itself an illusion based on lies — that voters are supposed to accept, simply because he tweets in ALL CAPS.
Whether all this will allow Biden to prevail in the economic argument — and in the election — remains to be seen. But if reality matters at all, Trump’s economic advantage really should prove far more precarious than it looks.
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