The loss of the House in 2006 and the election of Barack Obama two years later led political pundits, prematurely as we now know, to declare the Republican Party dead, doomed to remain a minority party, perhaps permanently. In the summer of 2009, the weak economy was still the top issue, and Republicans on the Hill found themselves debating strategic options as they looked for a way back from the political wilderness.
There were plenty of opinions among leadership and the rank and file on how to move forward. But one conversation stands out: It not only helped determine the party’s strategic path, but the dynamics at play then are not that different from the political environment we’re seeing unfold today.
In the meeting, members were discussing a proposal to focus the Republican narrative for the 2010 election on the stark differences between the two parties’ economic policies.
By keeping the emphasis on the economy, Republicans would be in a position to draw a distinction between a party that favored bigger government to solve the Great Recession and a party that believed the private sector, through less government, fewer regulations and lower taxes, offered a better path back to prosperity.
The strategy under consideration focused on job creation, expressed through the question, “Where are the jobs?” At one point, however, someone asked the question, “What happens if the economy improves?”
One member cut to the core of the argument by saying, “Then our problem isn’t losing an election. Our problem is our economic theory is wrong.”
When President Barack Obama’s policies failed to create jobs or right the economic ship of state, it was not political rhetoric that gave Republicans back the House in 2010. It was the numbers — weak job creation, flat wages and slow growth — that cost Democrats their majority. “Where are the jobs” simply framed the debate.
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Challenged by the math?
Here we are, some eight years later, and once again, Democrats may be challenged by the numbers — this time, good economic data delivered by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, or TCJA, that did not get a single Democratic vote. These days, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi get up every morning to more positive economic news — another major corporation announcing, bonuses wage increases and capital investment; job creation continuing to hum; and GDP hitting numbers we haven’t seen in years.
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Yet the two minority leaders continue to criticize the tax bill, discounting growing evidence that it might just deliver as promised. One can almost imagine a Heidi Heitkamp or Joe Manchin asking Schumer, “What happens if the tax bill works?” And therein lies the Democrats’ problem, because it’s obvious something is beginning to work.
When USA Today asks its readers if their company is giving bonuses thanks to the tax bill, you know something’s up. When the left-leaning Tax Policy Center acknowledges that 80 percent of taxpayers will receive a tax cut averaging about $2,100, something is definitely up. But when Chuck Schumer sets a government shutdown in motion and rejects out of hand what is probably the best DACA deal he’ll ever get, it looks like he has substituted chaos theory for economic theory.
My read is that Schumer, a smart politician who can read a poll, understands that every day the media focuses on anything but the economy is a good day for Democrats.
The TCJA train has left the station and the Democrats weren’t on it. What to do now?
Look over there
Understanding the media’s penchant for shiny objects, the Senate minority leader creates chaos. From government shutdowns to short-term CRs to warnings on all things Russian to blowing up DACA talks, it’s all to ensure media attention is anywhere but on the latest economic news, whether it’s growing 401(k)s, rising employment or corporate announcements of wage hikes, bonuses, bigger pension contributions or plant investments, all linked to the tax bill.
On the other side of the Hill, Pelosi does her part, too, with over-the-top rhetoric and offensive tirades, all designed to grab headlines and airtime.
But is Schumer’s chaos strategy enough to win in November? Democrats are in a bind having opposed the tax bill, which has been getting pretty good reviews and some positive coverage, even from mainstream media.
It’s not all roses for Republicans. Even with a stream of positive economic news, the TCJA still remains slightly underwater with voters. But how people feel now matters much less than how they will feel in November. Democrats are understandably worried that the trend lines, at least for now, aren’t encouraging for them.
Polls are showing that the more voters learn about what’s actually in the tax bill, the more they seem to like it. People still remain wary of another group of politicians promising better economic things to come, but they’ve already discovered it’s not “Armageddon” and they’re beginning to understand that the TCJA may be more than just a few “crumbs” doled out to the masses while the rich get the spoils.
But to keep the focus on economic policy — what’s working — it’s up to Republicans and President Donald Trump to restore order to Schumer’s chaos. Keep the agenda focused on issues that matter to voters and avoid the temptation to win skirmishes, rhetorical and otherwise, at the expense of the larger war.
For Republicans to be successful in November, a positive economic narrative needs to overpower Democrat-driven chaos.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.