The winning re-election argument Trump could have made
President Trump has woken up to political reality. He's losing to former Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps quite badly. And that belated realization explains why Trump finally seems to be all-in on another big economic stimulus and support package after days and weeks of dithering and flip-flopping. "Covid Relief Negotiations are moving along. Go Big!" represents his latest Twitter opinion on the subject. On Friday he told radio host Rush Limbaugh, "I would like to see a bigger stimulus frankly than either the Democrats or Republicans are offering." The Trump administration's counteroffer — at least for now — to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to be an approximately $1.8 trillion stimulus bill, according to news reports.
But it might be too late to do Trump much political good. There is still no deal, and negotiations are ongoing. Meanwhile, Trump's sinking polling numbers are undoubtedly eroding his ability to get skeptical Senate Republicans to go along with a plan they see as largely crafted by Democrats and infused with left-wing "Keynesian" economic thinking. Moreover, a deal needs to get wrapped up in short order (probably within days for an actual bill to get passed within a week or so after that) for any direct payments — along with a suitable-for-framing letter from the president — to reach voters before Election Day on Nov. 3. And, of course, it de facto already is Election Day, with more than five million Americans having already cast votes across 31 states.
But it didn't have to be this way. If Donald Trump finds himself next year holed up in a Mar-a-Lago guest room that's been converted into his personal podcasting studio, he might also find himself wondering why he didn't make this push sooner. A week after the Republican National Convention — generally reviewed as an effective messaging event for the GOP — polls still had Trump down by more than seven points to Biden. It was then that Trump should have leaned hard into the one strategy that might have allowed him to possibly close the gap with the help of an utterly predictable October "surprise."
See, five days before Election Day, the U.S. Commerce Department will release its first estimate of economic growth for the third quarter. And it's going to be a crazy big number, thanks to businesses coming back online from the pandemic lockdowns. Goldman Sachs is looking for a 35 percent, annualized jump in real GDP, JPMorgan 33 percent. An October surprise — at least to all those Americans consuming a steady stream of negative news from much of the media. To them, it might sound like America is experiencing an unexpected V-shaped recovery. To them, it might seem like Trump is already following through on his pledge to make post-pandemic America great again, again.
As it happens, Trump's one remaining electoral advantage heading into the fall was the economy. Despite the spring shutdown that put the economy into stasis, Trump still entered September with a net positive approval rating on the economy — three points or so — an edge he continues to have right up to today. That would have been the moment to have implemented the following plan: First, sign another big stimulus bill, one that included more checks for Americans. Take whatever Democrats were offering, add some sort of tax cut to it, and apply maximum pressure to Senate Republicans to pass it. Make sure voters credit that big October GDP number to Trump's efforts.
Second, Trump should have talked and tweeted incessantly about his economic record. The first three years of the Trump administration did see the economy accelerate a bit from the final three years of the Obama administration. More importantly, unemployment rates hit record lows, and wage growth was fastest for those in low-income sectors. Did all that happen along with a big increase in the national debt? Sure, but Trump could have let Biden play deficit scold at the debates.
Finally, Trump should have outlined a bold second-term agenda. Fat tax cuts for middle-class workers. Promise to build mini-Silicon Valley tech hubs in all the battleground states or something. Whatever. Just anything so Trump had something to talk about other than antifa and Hunter Biden. If Trump had something positive and forward-looking to promote, maybe the first debate with Biden would have gone differently. It's also worth noting that the part of the vice-presidential debate that arguably went best for Mike Pence was the section on the economy.
More stimulus will eventually get passed. And that will be good news for Americans — including, maybe, the new Biden administration.