Contributor Post Created with Sketch. What Can the 2020 Democrats Do About the Strong ‘Trump economy?’


There are perhaps only two core messages in politics: “Happy days are here again” for incumbents and “It’s time for a change” for challengers. But how does an American presidential candidate make the change argument during a strong economy? That’s the challenge for Democrats in 2020 — and a particularly obvious one after yet another robust employment report. (January jobs were up a surprisingly strong 225,000, and gains have averaged 211,000 over the past 3 months.)

And while you can always nitpick the data, the numbers help explain headlines like these:

  • “New High of 90% of Americans Satisfied With Personal Life” – Gallup
  • “Trump has highest economic approval rating of any president in the last 20 years” – Business Insider
  • “Majority of Americans say they’re satisfied with the economy at levels not seen since dotcom boom” – NBC/WSJ

So what’s a Democrat to do? For starters, they might want to look back at how George W. Bush handled things in 2000 when he ran against Vice President Al Gore. What a strong economy. The boom against which all others should be measured. Consumer confidence at an all-time high.

Now look how Bush dealt with the booming economy in his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention. First, Bush fully acknowledged the boom but gave Clinton-Gore no credit for it. “For eight years the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity.” Just another chapter in the Long Boom started by President Reagan.

Second, Bush highlighted problems that existed despite prosperity. “Seven of 10 fourth-graders in our highest poverty schools cannot read a simple children’s book. … We have the public resources and the public will, even the bipartisan opportunities to strengthen Social Security and repair Medicare. But this administration, during eight years of increasing need, did nothing.”

Third, Bush stressed America is about more than GDP numbers. “The rising generations of this country have our own appointment with greatness. It does not rise or fall with the stock market. It cannot be bought with our wealth. Greatness is found when American character and American courage overcome American challenges.” We went to the Moon, won the Cold War, defeated the Axis.

This is an approach Democrats could theoretically duplicate. After all, the expansion was well underway before President Trump took office and most economic trends are steady. And there really are still some big domestic problems such as education and entitlements. There are also major challenges ahead such as making sure the AI economy works for everyone and climate change. Democrats might make the argument that America can do better than a two-percent-growth economy. The Clinton boom, recall, also saw fantastic productivity growth, unlike the current one.

What Bush didn’t do is deny the existence of prosperity (real wages really are rising right now, especially on the low end), erroneously argue America had been in decline for 50 years, and call for implementing “big structural change” or chucking American capitalism in favor of the Nordic model, as Democrats keep doing. Bush wanted voters to know that while he had an important to-do list, none of it would screw up the economy. (Americans may want more economic security, but are they going to embrace a party that thinks billionaires shouldn’t exist or America’s most innovative companies should be dismantled?)

Bush basically promised he would keep the good times rolling. No “risky schemes.” And in the case of entitlement reform — something Democrats have little interest in — his agenda would help sustain the expansion by reducing debt. But Democrats seem increasingly enamored with the progressive-socialist idea that “late capitalism” is failing — “Most of us can’t even afford a $400 emergency expense!” — and not just that it’s time for a change — but rather that it’s time to change everything. Both polls and the economic stats suggest that is a big ask.

Published in Economics, Elections
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  1. Stad Thatcher

    James Pethokoukis: There are perhaps only two core messages in politics: “Happy days are here again” for incumbents and “It’s time for a change” for challengers.

    Challengers in a good economy can also say, “We can do better!”

    But not this time. A lot of voters know the economy is doing much better. I hope potential Trump-supporting Democrat voters don’t think, “I’m doing better, but other folks aren’t doing so well.” The left loves to use guilt and they’re good at it.

    James, great post as usual . . .

    • #1
    • February 10, 2020, at 11:58 AM PST
    • 1 like
  2. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    As is their normal behavior, the Democrats will wail that the great economy is only great for the Rich, and is bypassing the Poor, and the Minorities. They will push this idea even in the face of all the Facts that prove them wrong. This is how they work, and they can do nothing else. The trouble is, there is a segment of the public that believes this.

    • #2
    • February 10, 2020, at 12:17 PM PST
    • 1 like
  3. Manny Member

    Mr. Pethokoukis, weren’t you criticizing everything Trump was doing on the economy?

    • #3
    • February 10, 2020, at 12:26 PM PST
    • Like
  4. Ontheleftcoast Member

    I’m reminded of Magic Johnson’s blooper when he announced his HIV status: “I’m going to be a spokesman for the virus.”

    Democrats may wish to become evangelists for the coronavirus to make sure it does what they need to the economy.

    • #4
    • February 10, 2020, at 1:03 PM PST
  5. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    They could also try George Mitchell’s ploy and try to cause an even short term recession. That was enough to defeat Bush but he was not as alert to economics as Trump. I can see Democrats trying to do this but don’t see how.


    • #5
    • February 10, 2020, at 1:41 PM PST
    • Like
  6. Steve C. Member

    Happy days are here again…SO, it’s time for a change!

    • #6
    • February 10, 2020, at 1:43 PM PST
    • 1 like
  7. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member


    The real question is “who do you trust”. About 50 years ago they called themselves “the party of the little guy”. The biggest plank in their platform was a full-employment economy. If the unemployment rate went from 3.2 % to 3.6 % it was time for action. Every policy was evaluated on the basis of how it would affect the ordinary working person & family. In the late 70s, the party of the little guy disappeared and became the party of leftist elitism. Unfortunately, most of those who voted for and needed the party of the little guy didn’t realize what had happened. Finally, the handwriting on the wall became so large that they couldn’t miss it. This strange guy with orange hair started talking a language that they could understand. A language that they hadn’t heard in 50 years. Next, the economy, the economy that affected them directly, took off like a rocket. Next, the people who had been camouflaging themselves to still look like the party of the little guy tried every dirty trick in the book (and wrote some new ones) to destroy the strange orange-haired guy that was finally delivering to the little guy.

    Nothing could be more clear. Even a Marxist like Van Jones gets what’s up. Trump doesn’t need to say anything in particular. Everybody knows now that this guy will deliver. Meanwhile, everybody knows now that the other party is full of cr*p.

    They will go to the polls no matter what new nonsense the Party of leftist elites comes up with. They will vote for the orange-haired guy and they will kick the leftist elites right in the *ss.



    • #7
    • February 10, 2020, at 1:53 PM PST
    • Like
  8. I Walton Member

    Late capitalism does fail because central government powers grow and only the largest newest industries who aren’t yet regulated prosper, but key new industries enjoy previously unknown economies of scale so if we regulate them as well then the end will accelerate. So we have to deregulate and decentralize and let them all have at each other, but doing so is a real challenge in this new economy.

    • #8
    • February 10, 2020, at 4:00 PM PST
    • 1 like