Democrats remain in denial over the Trump economy

While their presidential hopefuls talk doom and gloom, the numbers tell a different story

Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic presidential hopefuls say the economy is only working for the rich. But a majority of voters would disagree, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic presidential hopefuls say the economy is only working for the rich. But a majority of voters would disagree, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 12, 2020 at 6:00am

OPINION — It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Democrats.  They now own a failed and discredited partisan impeachment, especially Nancy Pelosi and her chief prosecutors, Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler. 

“Nice” Iowa turned in a chaotic performance that put the issue of Democratic competence into play.  Do voters really want to put their health care in the hands of people unable to count a few ballots and deliver credible results?

This was followed by Donald Trump’s State of the Union that put congressional Democrats in the unenviable position of having to sit glumly on their hands as the president touted the economy and delivered a series of visually moving American stories, highlighting his policies and plans.

And then there was the behavior of the speaker herself over the past month.  As it became clear that her strategy was to force the Senate into a witness-packed trial to salvage her managers’ weak case, Pelosi’s conduct became more defensive, more combative and less effective.

Her increasing irritability was on full display during the State of the Union as she fidgeted throughout the 78-minute speech.  But when her temper finally got the better of her, it was the image of the speaker of the House ripping up a copy of the text in full view that will forever linger in people’s memories of her and her leadership.

I’m not saying that the Democrats’ political missteps of the last month have sewn up the 2020 election for Republicans, but the challenge for Democrats is definitely tougher now.  And their problems are becoming increasingly obvious as they remain anchored to a struggling two-pronged strategy.

By any means necessary

First, they tell voters, as James Carville told Vox, “We have one moral imperative here, and that’s beating Trump. Nothing else matters.” The party base loves this kind of self-affirming “by any means necessary” rhetoric.  It makes OK holding up the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement while farmers are hurting and justifies putting the country through a divisive impeachment process. But it doesn’t do much to further the Democratic Party as the majoritarian party Carville says he wants.

But it is their second objective that is more problematic for Democrats.  In debate after debate, appearance after appearance, their presidential hopefuls are trying to make the case that, despite a mountain of statistics to the contrary, the economy isn’t working for most Americans. In other words, they’re asking voters, “Who are you going to believe — us or the Bureau of Labor Statistics?”

Elizabeth Warren kicked things off in the first presidential debate by saying, “When you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out.” Democrats have been doing it ever since.

In last month’s Iowa debate, Joe Biden claimed that “where I come from, the neighborhoods I come from, they’re in real trouble. … The American public is getting clobbered. The wealthy are the only ones doing well, period.” 

Pete Buttigieg told a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa, that a lot of the economic growth “isn’t getting to most of us.”   

Tom Steyer said in New Hampshire that “the fact that [Trump is] incompetent as a president, his economy isn’t delivering for working people, the jobs don’t pay enough for people to live on.”

After the State of the Union, Bernie Sanders charged that “Trump’s billionaire friends … have never, ever had it so good. But for the middle class and working families of this country, the truth is that the economy is not so great.” 

And so it goes.

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In the real world

But there’s an underlying problem with this argument.  The economic numbers tell a different story and people know it.  Trump’s RealClearPolitics average economic job approval this week is at 56 percent approve and 39 percent disapprove. 

But even worse for Democratic strategists is Gallup’s Mood of the Nation survey from last month that found 59 percent of Americans saying they are better off financially than a year ago and a staggering 74 percent believing they will be better off next year. 

Good news for Trump. Very bad news for a Democratic strategy that depends on convincing people that the Trump economy is bad for America. And Tuesday, the head of the Fed didn’t make things any easier for the Democrats.

In testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Chairman Jerome Powell, hardly a partisan, undercut the Democrats’ doom-and-gloom message with his semiannual monetary policy report.  He told the panel that jobs gains had averaged 200,000 per month in the second half of last year, and January saw 225,000 new jobs.

But even more damaging to the credibility of the Democrats’ message, Powell also said that the unemployment rate “has been near half-century lows for more than a year.”

He went on: “Job openings remain plentiful. Employers are increasingly willing to hire workers … with fewer skills and train them.  As a result, the benefits of a strong labor market have become more widely shared.”

“People who live and work in low- and middle-income communities are finding new opportunities. Employment gains have been broad-based across all racial and ethnic groups and levels of education.”

And perhaps most important, “Wages have been rising, particularly for lower-paying jobs.”

The Labor Department’s February jobs report confirms the positive picture painted by Powell with wage growth beating expectations at 3.1 percent, the 18th consecutive month of wage increases 3 percent or higher.  As the president pointed out in the State of the Union, African American, Hispanic, and Asian unemployment continues at historic lows, while women’s unemployment is the lowest in 70 years. And it’s women who have filled 72 percent of all new jobs added.

By the time this column is published, New Hampshire will be over. But regardless of who wins the Granite State, or the nomination for that matter, every Democratic candidate has already embraced and is now saddled with an economic message that contradicts the general view of a majority of the electorate. That doesn’t mean the fall election is a done deal, far from it. Nor does it mean there isn’t more work to do to keep improving the economy, increase wages and free more people from the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck.

Democrats have adopted a negative strategy that appeals to their base while a majority of voters are seeing a stronger economy that is becoming more broad-based — and one they believe is likely to continue for the next year. Polls also show voters don’t believe they will personally benefit from what seems to be the central focus of Democratic economic policy: raising taxes on the wealthy.

The Democrats’ approach certainly helps to create opportunities for Republicans this fall.

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.