Republicans can’t win the economic argument if they don’t make it in the first place

Democrats repeatedly take credit for the successes of GOP policies

It is high time that Republicans start arguing for what their economic policies are supposed to do and have already done, instead of taking the easy and predictable path to yet again attack Democrats, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
It is high time that Republicans start arguing for what their economic policies are supposed to do and have already done, instead of taking the easy and predictable path to yet again attack Democrats, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 6:00am

Friday’s jobs report was good news: 379,000 new jobs were added in February and the unemployment rate ticked down to 6.2 percent. As the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 doldrums, numbers like these offer hope that 2021 will see the country return to health and prosperity.

So it was frustrating to see the lukewarm reaction of so many Republicans to the extraordinary economic progress created by their tax and other policies, beginning with the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Some used the occasion to attack the Biden administration which, as some pointed out, has contributed exactly nothing to help restart the recovery. If anything, Joe Biden’s executive actions — stopping the Keystone pipeline, ending drilling on public lands, destroying jobs — could well put the brakes on what now looks like an economic rebound ahead.

If the current GOP economic policies were to remain in place, the economy would likely continue to improve over the coming months. Goldman Sachs has already predicted economic of growth of 6.8 percent this year, based on today’s economy. The question is to what extent and how quickly.

While the road to full economic recovery will take time, the fact that unemployment is down to 6.2 percent (something that took Barack Obama 63 months to reach) and the pandemic isn’t over is a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the resilience of the private sector and Republican regulatory and tax policies put into place prior to the pandemic.

Instead of criticizing the positive economic report, Republicans ought to take credit for producing an economy so strong the country has been able to weather shutting down almost our entire economic system, not without pain, but with the power to rebound and quickly. But many Republicans seem ready and willing to cede the rebounding economy over to the Democrats.

At this point, the recovering economy isn’t Biden’s doing. Since he took office, no serious economic legislation has been signed, much less implemented, so the improvement we’re seeing in the economic numbers clearly isn’t the result of Democratic policies. But I’ll give them credit. Democrats are skilled at strategic positioning and shaping facts to fit politically helpful narratives.

Commenting on the jobs report, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said the numbers were “not good enough.” Republicans should take note. There is a method to his madness.

Klain is downplaying the numbers now to lay the groundwork to claim ownership for the historic rebound that he knows will almost inevitably come. Another good jobs report or two and it will be Biden, with a little help from his friends in the media, taking a bow for the economy, whether his policies have anything to do with it or not — unless things begin to slow, of course.

A longtime problem

This isn’t the first time Republicans have failed to argue for the success of their economic policies, and it has cost them dearly. In 1998, they decided to make the congressional election about Bill Clinton instead of focusing on their center-right policies, which had led to low unemployment, a roaring economy and the first balanced budget since 1969.

It didn’t work. Instead, voters concluded that the country’s economic successes were due to the “Clinton economy,” which provided Democrats with a strategic advantage that lasts to this day.

In another miscalculation, Republicans failed to define the economic progress achieved by George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which led to congressional losses in 2006, 2012 and 2018. Virtually no one was aware that from 2003 to 2007, federal income increased by almost $800 billion a year, the largest expansion of federal revenue in the country’s history. Bush had promised to cut the deficit in half and did so by 2007.

He accomplished this by reducing the deficit from $376 billion in 2003 to $161 billion in 2007. The lack of a Republican message to rightfully claim credit for fiscal policies that were producing a good economy allowed Democrats to blame the Great Recession and the deficit in 2008 and afterward on the tax cuts rather than on their bad housing policies, which helped create the home mortgage crisis.

That blame continues today. Although the Republican Party has put clear policy achievements on the board, the public doesn’t know it. The Bush tax cuts have been forever branded by Democrats as “failed policies of the past,” and Republicans continue to carry that political albatross to this day.

At last summer’s Democratic National Convention, the Obama-Biden economy was widely touted. There was a lot of happy talk about the 2009 stimulus package, which, in reality, did little to improve the economy. What they didn’t mention was the impact of Obama’s decision to support making 98 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent in 2013. It was Republicans who made that happen and turned the economy around. But Obama took the credit as the economy began to recover, and Biden continues to benefit from Obama’s economic legacy.

The 2018 blunder

There’s more. Following the passage of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Republicans chose to focus their 2018 midterm messaging on “caravans” and Nancy Pelosi instead of the successes of the GOP economic policies. They stuck with that decision even after the remarkable jobs report released the weekend prior to the election.

That report was so impressive that Jared Bernstein, Biden’s economic adviser, said it was “pretty much everything you could want in a monthly jobs report.” But Republican strategists believed the closing message should focus on the caravans and immigration to help turn out the base rather than on the success of their economic policies, which would have appealed to independents.

Republicans lost the House and lost independents by 12 points in 2018. Our postelection research showed that, other than the GOP base, the caravan/immigration message was negatively received by voters. The economic message was the most positive one for Republicans, but not enough people heard it.  The caravan/immigration message simply drowned it out.

It is high time that conservatives start arguing for what their policies are supposed to do and have already done, instead of taking the easy and predictable path to yet again attack Democrats. That thinking has allowed Democrats to take credit for the success of Republican economic policies over and over again.

Reading this column, I’m guessing a lot of Democrats will want to argue its central premise. I’m always happy to debate policy, and so should Republicans because I believe they have the facts on their side to win the debate.

But you can’t win an argument if you don’t make it in the first place.

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.