Donald Trump gave a much-anticipated speech Monday morning about his plans for the economy, and much of it read like something that could have been penned by any Republican presidential candidate from the last 50 years.
Cutting tax rates across the board? Check. Simplifying the tax code and eliminating loopholes? Check. Temporarily barring new regulations and rolling back old ones? Check. Producing more energy? Check. Generating vigorous economic growth? Check. Blaming Democratic policies for the demise of a once-great U.S. city? Check.
Democrats will no doubt wave off these claims as a sop to the wealthy (who would reap most of the benefits of a broad-based tax cut because they pay the most taxes), or as fiscally irresponsible (because they aren’t likely to generate enough growth to prevent federal tax revenue from dropping), or as environmentally reckless (because they would increase carbon emissions). But they’ll be missing the forest for the trees.
The economy is the hanging curveball waiting for Trump to belt over the fence. If he stops talking about Muslims and Mexicans and focuses instead on jobs and growth, he would play to the strengths that any mainstream Republican candidate would have this year while accentuating the weaknesses of any mainstream Democrat trying to hold onto the White House.
Granted, Trump didn’t get to where he is by being a mainstream candidate. The controversies he’s generated (and the detractors he’s accumulated) with his eccentric campaign have won him a priceless amount of free media coverage and the devotion of voters eager for a candidate who is clearly not a cog in The Machine.
As recent polls have shown, however, those voters alone can’t put Trump in the White House. There simply aren’t enough of them, and too much of the remaining electorate is turned off by Trump the Insult Comic Candidate. So like any freshly minted nominee, he has to broaden his appeal. And the issue on which he’s likely to find the most receptive audience is the frustratingly tepid U.S. economy, which has stumbled along at a pace usually associated with sclerotic European countries.
The playing field should be tilted in the GOP’s favor this year, with median household income just having regained its pre-recession peak (and still trailing its level in 2000, just before the previous recession). Though Clinton and other Democrats like to talk about the millions of jobs created since 2010 and the number of consecutive quarters of job gains, public-opinion polls continue to reveal that many voters remain anxious about the economy. People may think they’re doing OK at the moment, but they’re still worried about the future.
The implication is that Democrats should be on the defensive this go-round, trying to persuade people that they — and the United States in general — aren’t doing as badly as they might think. Which is exactly what Democrats said at their convention last month. And that’s a tough sell, especially when your main goals for the economy seem to be raising the minimum wage and narrowing income inequality, not sparking the kind of growth that lifts all Americans’ fortunes. Add to it the fact that voters opted for big changes in the tone and conduct of Washington in 2000 and 2008 without getting anything close to that, and you have the table set for yet another shift in control of the White House.
Granted, Trump hasn’t composed his economic message entirely on GOP stationery. In his speech in Detroit, he devoted a fair amount of attention to the evils of globalism and international trade deals, attacking the commercial internationalism that used to be part of the Republican orthodoxy. But populist ire at imported goods and imported workers is running strong this year, so he probably isn’t hurting himself on that front. And if he sticks to the script he followed in Detroit for the rest of the campaign, he may finally give himself the chance to take advantage of the big-picture forces working in the GOP’s favor.
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