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