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Trump's Economy Might Not Be Enough to Save the House

Irwin M. Stelzer

With the November congressional elections only 87 days away, Donald Trump has added to his revolutionary use of tweets what might prove to be an outdated reliance on two old-fashioned electoral winners to pull Republican candidates through tough elections: a booming economy and promise-keeping. Most presidents attempt to expand their political base once in office. Not so this unconventional political outsider, who is relying instead on high turnout by his hard-core base.

That strategy is likely to cost his party control of the House of Representatives and perhaps of the Senate. No small matter: House committees controlled by Democrats will launch one investigation after another, bedevil administration officials with subpoenas, and quite possibly initiate impeachment proceedings if the Democratic moderates cannot hold off the hard-left activists, some of whom regard themselves more as socialists than as Democrats.

Trump believes he can intervene in enough close contests to retain control of Congress, notwithstanding his relatively weak approval rating—41.9 percent compared with Regan’s 44.2 percent and Obama’s 47.3 percent at this time in the election cycle, according to Gallup. But good times and promises kept are no longer sure winners.

“It’s the economy stupid,” the mantra credited with Bill Clinton’s successful runs for the presidency, might be as dated as the then-president’s view on the proper treatment of women. And delivering on his campaign promises brings hoots of joy from the Trump core at the rallies he so loves, but does not seem to help Trump-backed candidates gain support of non-core voters.

Start with the economy. When Trump took office, the economy was growing at annual rate of around 2 percent; it is now growing at twice that. When Trump was elected the S&P 500 share index stood at 2,163; it is now more than 30 percent higher. When Trump took office the unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, it is now 3.9 percent. Abandoning his usual modesty, the president is taking credit for letting the good times roll by cutting taxes and by rolling back President Obama’s regulatory state, unleashing the business community’s animal spirits.

The Democratic response is straightforward: This booming economy is the result of debt-fueled, irresponsible tax cuts. When Trump took over responsibility for the national budget the federal deficit was running at $669 billion; it will hit $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) in 2020. That’s 50 percent more red ink than a supposedly profligate Obama dared pour over the federal books. Worse still: the tax cuts that Trump claims are producing “his” economic boom went to corporations and “the rich,” who are partying and will send the bill to the average voter’s children and grandchildren for future payment. This line is proving so effective that Republican strategists are urging their candidates to drop mention of the tax cuts and instead campaign on Democrats’ “defense of open borders” and “amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

Trump is not relying only on accelerated growth to woo voters. Another trope that in the past has worked for politicians is, “I keep my promises.” He promised to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and did. He promised to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement and he has. He promised to scupper the deal with Iran, and did just that. He promised to cut taxes, and did. He promised to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court, and has. He promised to roll back regulations and has. He promised to side with law enforcement and pro-religious-freedom groups and has.

All, it seems for naught. Last week the retirement of a congressman in Ohio prompted a special election. This district has been a Republican stronghold for more than three decades. Its largest city, Columbus, has become home to a thriving venture capital industry. The Kaufman Foundation, which encourages entrepreneurship, says more new businesses have scaled up—grown to more than 50 employees—in Columbus than in any other major metropolitan area. The middle-ranked household in Columbus has an income of $73,000, about $13,000 higher than the U.S. average. “It is the classic home of the country-club Republican,” say the poll analysts at FiveThirtyEight, referring to the hard-working executives who staff Columbus’ medical and financial services industries and try to squeeze in an occasional round of golf. No similarity to what various New York Times’ reports describe as the “nouveau riche . . . real estate developers, Wall Street financiers, [and] energy executives” who populate the membership rolls of Mar-a-Lago.

Trump, who carried the district easily in 2016, 53 percent-to-42 percent, visited it to lock in a Republican landslide. He failed. The race was so close that it will not be decided until the end of the month, when the count of thousands of absentee and provisional ballots (the latter are those cast by voters not on the roll or without proper ID) will be completed. Prosperity and promise-keeping were not enough to maintain clear Republican dominance of a rich, entrepreneurial, 86.3 percent non-Hispanic white part of this Ohio district. But the more sparsely populated rural portions of the district, which have not shared in the Columbus-area boom, remained loyal to the president. My guess is that voters there find the promises kept to be of the sort they favor. In urban areas Trump’s promises-kept on social issues—immigration, abortion, judicial appointments, LGBT rights subordinated to religious and national defence considerations—and his vulgarity count for more than fatter after-tax pay checks. The opposite of how rural, lower income voters see things.

Of course, a special election is not a general election, and voter turnout, especially in August, is relatively low. Nevertheless, the Ohio election, along with serious Republican under-performance in other contests, has persuaded most analysts that the Democrats will seize control of the House in a few weeks’ time.

It seems that man—urban man and suburban woman especially—does not live by great economic statistics alone.

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