His race-baiting is impulsive and unpopular, not a brilliant strategy to win white votes.
Some columns spring from inspiration, some from diligent research. And some you’re prodded into writing because of what the other columnists are arguing about.
This is the third kind. With the Democratic debates in the spotlight, there has been a lot written on this op-ed page about the Democratic Party’s ideological evolution, its leftward march on many issues, and how this might help Donald Trump win re-election. Which in turn has prompted a recurring argument from certain of my liberal colleagues that anyone writing about the supposedly extremist Democrats should be writing about Trump’s extremism and unpopularity instead.
So this will be, as requested, a column about Trump’s extremism and unpopularity. But it’s not going to be a mirror image of the columns about the Democrats’ move leftward, because I don’t think policy substance matters as much to Trump’s prospects as it might to the party trying to unseat him.
It matters less because Trump in 2020 won’t be a change candidate. Instead, like every incumbent, he’ll be a candidate of the policy status quo — only much more so in his case, because his legislative agenda dissolved earlier than most presidents and the prospects for continued gridlock are obvious.
That means Trump probably won’t be campaigning on what he promised across 2016 — the kind of infrastructure-building, “worker’s party” conservatism whose ambitions vanished with Steve Bannon. But he also won’t be campaigning on the Paul Ryan agenda that the Republican Congress pushed in his first year, or reviving unpopular Ryan-era ideas like entitlement reform on the 2020 trail.
Instead Trump’s policy argument in 2020 will be, basically, let’s keep doing what we’re doing. That status quo includes a
- deregulatory agenda,
- a tariff push and a
- harsh border policy that are all unpopular.
But it also includes:
- free-spending budgets,
- easy money and a more
- anti-interventionist (for now) foreign policy than past Republicans, all of which are relatively popular.
And in the context of a strong economic expansion, a Trump re-election effort that rested on this record while warning against Democratic radicalism could be plausibly favored.
Except that this isn’t the kind of campaign that Trump himself wants to run. He wants the
- racialized Twitter feuds, the
- battles over Baltimore and Ilhan Omar, the
- media freak-outs and the
- “don’t call us racist!” defensiveness of his rallygoing fans.
He feeds on it, he loves it, and he’s as obviously bored by the prospect of a safe, status-quo campaign as he is obviously uninterested in the conservative intellectuals trying to transform Trumpism into something intellectually robust.
And here I agree with the left that there’s a media tendency to give Trump’s race-baiting impulses more credit as a strategy than they actually deserve. After each Twitter outburst his advisers try to retrofit a strategic vision, to claim there’s a master plan unfolding in which 2020 will become a referendum on Omar’s anti-Semitic tropes or the Baltimore crime rate. And the press gives them credence out of an imprinted-by-2016 fear that the president has a sinister sort of genius about what will help him win.
But this is paranoia, and the retrofitting is Trumpworld wishful thinking. There was, yes, a sinister genius at work when Trump used birtherism to build a primary-season constituency in 2016. But since then, his race-baiting has clearly contributed to his chronic unpopularity, and his re-election chances would almost certainly be far better if he talked like George W. Bush on race instead.
Second, in 2016 Trump won many millions of voters who disapproved of him. But in recent 2020 polling, Trump is performing below his job approval rating in many head-to-head matchups, which suggests that voters who would be responsive to the “policy status quo” argument keep getting turned off by the president’s rhetoric. The supposedly-brilliant strategy of racial polarization, then, is probably just a self-inflicted wound.
None of this means that Trump cannot be re-elected. But it means that if he wins again, it will likely be in spite of his own rhetoric, not as the dark fruit of a white-identitarian campaign.
In this sense both NeverTrump-conservative and liberal columnists can be right about the basic situation. The liberals are right that Trump is defiantly outside the mainstream — that every day, in a particular way, he proves himself extreme.
But this is a fixed reality for 2020, and the NeverTrump side is right about the variable: The campaign may turn on how successfully the Democrats claim or build an anti-Trump center, as opposed to appearing to offer an unpalatable extremism of their own.
Why Was Trumponomics a Flop?
Neither tax cuts nor tariffs are working.
Donald Trump has pursued two main economic policies. On taxes, he has been an orthodox Republican, pushing through big tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, which his administration promised would lead to a huge surge in business investment. On trade, he has broken with his party’s free(ish) trade policies, imposing large tariffs that he promised would lead to a revival of U.S. manufacturing.
On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates, even though the unemployment rate is low and overall economic growth remains decent, though not great. According to Jay Powell, the Fed’s chairman, the goal was to take out some insurance against worrying hints of a future slowdown — in particular, weakness in business investment, which fell in the most recent quarter, and manufacturing, which has been declining since the beginning of the year.
Obviously Powell couldn’t say in so many words that Trumponomics has been a big flop, but that was the subtext of his remarks. And Trump’s frantic efforts to bully the Fed into bigger cuts are an implicit admission of the same thing.
To be fair, the economy remains pretty strong, which isn’t really a surprise given the G.O.P.’s willingness to run huge budget deficits as long as Democrats don’t hold the White House. As I wrote three days after the 2016 election — after the shock had worn off — “It’s at least possible that bigger budget deficits will, if anything, strengthen the economy briefly.” And that’s pretty much what happened: There was a bit of a bump in 2018, but at this point we’ve basically returned to pre-Trump rates of growth.
Republican faith in the magic of tax cuts — and, correspondingly, belief that tax increases will doom the economy — is the ultimate policy zombie, a view that should have been killed by evidence decades ago but keeps shambling along, eating G.O.P. brains.
The record is actually awesomely consistent.
- Bill Clinton’s tax hike didn’t cause a depression,
- George W. Bush’s tax cuts didn’t deliver a boom,
- Jerry Brown’s California tax increase wasn’t “economic suicide,”
- Sam Brownback’s Kansas tax-cut “experiment” (his term) was a failure.
Nevertheless, Republicans persist. This time around, the centerpiece of the tax cut was a huge break for corporations, which was supposed to induce companies to bring back the money they’ve invested overseas and put the money to work here. Instead, they basically used the tax savings to buy back their own stock.
What went wrong? Business investment depends on many factors, with tax rates way down the list. While a casual look at the facts might suggest that corporations invest a lot in countries with low taxes, like Ireland, this is mainly an illusion: Companies use accounting tricks to report huge profits and hence big investments in tax havens, but these don’t correspond to anything real.
What about the trade war? The evidence is overwhelming: Tariffs don’t have much effect on the overall trade balance. At most they just shift the deficit around: We’re importing less from China, but we’re importing more from other places, like Vietnam.
And there’s a good case to be made that Trump’s tariffs have actually hurt U.S. manufacturing. For one thing, many of them have hit “intermediate goods,” that is, stuff American companies use in their production processes, so the tariffs have raised costs.
Beyond that, the uncertainty created by Trump’s policy by whim — nobody knows what he’ll hit next — has surely deterred investment. Why build a manufacturing plant when, for all you know, next week a tweet will destroy your market, your supply chain, or both?
Now, none of this has led to economic catastrophe. As Adam Smith once wrote, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Except in times of crisis, presidents matter much less for the economy than most people think, and while Trumponomics has utterly failed to deliver on its promises, it’s not bad enough to do enormous damage.
On the other hand, think of the missed opportunities. Imagine how much better shape we’d be in if the hundreds of billions squandered on tax cuts for corporations had been used to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Imagine what we could have done with policies promoting jobs of the future in things like renewable energy, instead of trade wars that vainly attempt to recreate the manufacturing economy of the past.
And since everything is political these days, let me say that pundits who think that Trump will be able to win by touting a strong economy are almost surely wrong. He most likely won’t face a recession (although who knows?), but he definitely hasn’t made the economy great again.
So he’s probably going to have to do what he’s already doing, and clearly wants to do: run on racism instead.
Who’s Afraid of the Budget Deficit?
Democrats shouldn’t put themselves in a fiscal straitjacket.On Thursday, the best House speaker of modern times reclaimed her gavel, replacing one of the worst. It has taken the news media a very long time to appreciate the greatness of Nancy Pelosi, who saved Social Security from privatization, then was instrumental in gaining health insurance for 20 million Americans. And the media are still having a hard time facing up to the phoniness of their darling Paul Ryan, who, by the way, left office with a 12 percent favorable rating.
There’s every reason to expect that Pelosi will once again be highly effective. But some progressive Democrats object to one of her initial moves — and on the economics, and probably the politics, the critics are right.
.. The issue in question is “paygo,” a rule requiring that increases in spending be matched by offsetting tax increases or cuts elsewhere.
You can argue that as a practical matter, the rule won’t matter much if at all. On one side, paygo is the law, whether Democrats put it in their internal rules or not. On the other side, the law can fairly easily be waived, as happened after the G.O.P.’s huge 2017 tax cut was enacted.
But adopting the rule was a signal of Democratic priorities — a statement that the party is deeply concerned about budget deficits and willing to cramp its other goals to address that concern. Is that a signal the party should really be sending?
.. Furthermore, there are things the government should be spending money on even when jobs are plentiful — things like fixing our deteriorating infrastructure and helping children get education, health care and adequate nutrition. Such spending has big long-run payoffs, even in purely monetary terms.
Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow money very cheaply — the interest rate on inflation-protected 10-year bonds is only about 1 percent. These low borrowing costs, in turn, reflect what seems to be a persistent savings glut — that is, the private sector wants to save more than it’s willing to invest, even with very low interest rates.
Or consider what happened after Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act, going to great lengths to pay for the additional benefits with tax increases and spending cuts. A majority of voters still believed that it increased the deficit. Reality doesn’t seem to matter.
.. Anyway, the truth is that while voters may claim to care about the deficit, hardly any of them really do. For example, does anyone still believe that the Tea Party uprising was a protest against deficits? From the beginning, it was basically about race — about the government spending money to help Those People. And that’s true of a lot of what pretends to be fiscal conservatism.
.. In fact, even the deficit scolds who played such a big role in Beltway discourse during the Obama years seem oddly selective in their concerns about red ink. After all those proclamations that fiscal doom was coming any day now unless we cut spending on Social Security and Medicare, it’s remarkable how muted their response has been to a huge, budget-busting tax cut. It’s almost as if their real goal was shrinking social programs, not limiting national debt.
.. So am I saying that Democrats should completely ignore budget deficits? No; if and when they’re ready to move on things like some form of Medicare for All, the sums will be so large that asking how they’ll be paid for will be crucial.
Are Trump’s Policies Hurting Long-Term US Growth?
When it comes to economic performance, US presidents have considerably more influence over long-term trends than over short-term fluctuations. And it is by this standard that Donald Trump’s administration should be judged.President Donald Trump regularly thumps his chest and claims credit for each new uptick of the fast-growing US economy. But when it comes to economic performance, US presidents have considerably more influence over long-term trends than over short-term fluctuations... Still, it is not easy to speed up a $20 trillion economy, even by running a budget deficit of nearly $1 trillion, as Trump’s administration is doing... In a cantankerous political environment, it is not easy to think about the long term. But, thanks to the magic of compound interest, measures that marginally raise long-term growth matter a lot. For example,
- the transportation deregulation policies of President Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s set the stage for the Internet retail revolution.
- President Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts in the 1980s helped restore US growth in the ensuing decades (but also exacerbated inequality trends). And
- President Barack Obama’s efforts (and before him President George W. Bush’s) to contain the damage from the 2008 financial crisis underpin the strong economy for which Trump wants to take full credit... The end-2017 corporate tax reform was one of those rare instances where the US Congress comprehensively streamlined and improved the US’s Byzantine tax system, though the corporate tax rate should have been set at 25%, not 21%... Obama would likely have been very happy to pass a similar bill. But, during his presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress insisted that any proposal had to be “revenue neutral” even in the short term, which is a tough political hurdle for any fundamental tax reform... a wide range of studies – from the work of the late economist David Landes to more recent research by MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and the University of Chicago’s James A. Robinson – find that.. institutions and political culture are the single most important determinants of long-term growth... political culture in the US may take years; if so, the economic costs could be considerable... Moreover, in accordance with the administration’s disdain for science, the proposed budgets for basic research, including for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, were reduced sharply (fortunately, the US Congress rejected the cuts).And anti-trust enforcement, needed to counter excessive monopoly power in many parts of the economy, is essentially dormant.That will exacerbate inequality over the long term; Trump’s coal mines and trade tariffs are at best band-aids on a bullet wound... many of the regulations that Trump is targeting ought to be strengthened, not eliminated. It is hard to imagine that gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement are helpful for long-run growth, given that the costs of cleaning up pollution later vastly exceed the costs of mitigating it today... As for financial regulation, the reams of new rules adopted after the 2008 financial crisis have been a dream come true for lawyers. Rather than try to micromanage banking, it would be far better to ensure that shareholders have more “skin in the game,” so that big banks are more inclined to avoid excessive risk. On the other hand, neutering existing legislation without putting anything adequate in its place sets the stage for another financial crisis... although the US economy is indeed growing rapidly, the full extent of Trump’s economic legacy might not be felt for a decade or more. In the meantime, should a downturn come, it will not be Trump’s fault – at least according to Trump, who is already gearing up to blame the US Federal Reserve for raising interest rates and ruining all his good work.