OPINION — It’s been a rough week in Washington, and it’s only Wednesday. The president created a firestorm over the weekend, lobbing rhetorical bombs at “the squad,” the four House Democratic freshmen whose heated comments and extreme policy proposals have created one fire storm of controversy after another.
Now, the president’s getting return fire from Democrats and the media and some Republicans for his tweets, while the House floor Tuesday devolved into a war of words. I suspect most people would be grateful for a cease-fire from the increasingly personal attacks and almost hand-to-hand combat over everything from impeachment to immigration to congressional investigations.
I’m not saying people don’t care about all of those things. They do, but that’s not what’s going on in Washington and on the campaign trail these days. And people know it.
They understand that this is the worst of times for political discourse in one of the best of times for the U.S. economy, even if there’s room for more progress.
They also understand that questioning the motives of your political opponents doesn’t put food on their tables or shoes on their kids’ feet and neither do extreme statements that only divide the country or radical proposals that would dramatically change our economic foundation.
They understand that the kind of skirmishing we’ve seen escalate in recent weeks is all about politics and positioning, and they don’t like it.
What really matters
What both sides seem to have forgotten in the fog of war is that the question most people will ask themselves in November 2020 won’t simply be, “Are we better off than we were four years ago?” For most voters, their decision is more complicated than that and goes beyond whether the country is moving in the right direction or whether the economy is getting better.
Most voters will make their decision in a much more personal context by asking, “Is the economy beginning to work for me and my family — finally?” How each voter frames that question depends on the state of their own “individual economy,” based on a range of issues, from jobs and wages to the cost of health care and their ability to positively affect their personal economic outcome.
In 2009, as the economy spiraled, people felt they had no control over their lives and what was happening to them and the country. The fear they felt then is just as real today, which is why so many people are so exhausted by the war between the bases that is driving political discourse and discord across America.
The political center, likely to pick the next president, is just plain tired of everyone and everything Washington. What they want is control over their family budgets, their health care and their futures, especially retirement.
How voters assess progress over the past four years and who deserves the credit or blame will determine, plain and simple, the outcome of the 2020 election — both the presidency and Congress.
In early June, our Winning the Issues survey found that 36 percent of people believed that the economy was getting better and the rate of progress was acceptable. Another 24 percent agreed that the economy was getting better but felt the rate of progress wasn’t acceptable, while 30 percent didn’t believe the economy was getting better at all.
Next year won’t be the first or last election in which Republicans face a complex economic belief system. Context matters. The 2012 presidential election is a perfect example.
People weren’t happy with the pace of the economic recovery. In fact, exit polls showed that only 23 percent of the country thought the economy was excellent or good, while 77 percent saw it as not so good or poor. The bad polling numbers for President Barack Obama made sense. This was the slowest economic recovery since World War II, and job creation had been painfully slow over his first term. Wages were still stagnant and anemic economic growth continued to dog the administration.
But the Mitt Romney campaign made a strategic unforced error when they posed the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Given that four years earlier the country was losing more than half a million jobs a month, the campaign created the only context in which people could answer positively, “Well, maybe I am.”
Now, almost eight years later, President Donald Trump and the GOP should have a distinct advantage. With strong economic winds at their backs, Republicans, and their policies, have produced the three things that matter most in politics — growth, jobs and higher wages. If the country’s economy remains strong the rest of this year and into the next, 2020 may be a good Republican year.
But news of record-breaking unemployment, wage growth and stock market highs are being swamped by news coverage focused on racial issues and immigration, Democratic Caucus infighting and congressional investigations, none of which translate into positives for either side, other than resonating with their bases.
Ironically, last week, Nancy Pelosi got tagged by “the squad,” who implied that criticisms of their statements and behavior may have been driven by some kind of personal animus toward them as women of color. This week, it’s been Trump back in the hot seat for his denunciation of the language and actions of the four freshmen.
What seems to be the end of civil political discourse might explain people’s slightly positive attitude on the direction of the economy — 46 percent said it’s on the right track, 37 percent on the wrong track, in our June 29-30 Winning the Issues survey — and their more negative view of the direction of the country, 39 percent to 52 percent. Usually, these numbers, which reflect voter happiness or unhappiness, are roughly the same. But that isn’t the case today with the direction-of-the-country numbers lagging behind the economic numbers.
What politicians and the media seem to have forgotten in the fog of war is that voters are more sophisticated than they get credit for, and at this moment, many are far from locked in for any candidate or party, especially those who think faster economic progress could be made.
In the end, they will make their decision based on who they believe has the better plan for the economy and the future. Whoever figures that out first and trades in bare-knuckle political brawling for a civil discussion of their vision for the country and their plans to make it happen will likely come out on top in 2020.
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 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.