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The GOP’s Economy Problem, and How to Fix It in 2016

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Republicans have bad luck. In the last two presidential elections, voters considered the economy to be their top issue — and they hammered the Republicans on their failures here, including their policies toward Wall Street. This time around, voters consider the economy and Wall Street to be less important — and the issue fades a bit more with every month of job growth.

This is hardly good news for the GOP, though. Voters still care about the economy, and they care less acutely only because, under a Democratic president, they’ve watched the economy recover from the worst economic and financial crisis they’ve ever experienced. Republicans can blunt this disadvantage. But it will require them to go against every economic and political instinct they have.

Nearly eight years after the 2008 meltdown, Americans’ deep concern over the economy is fading. In an April poll, 53% of potential voters told The Wall Street Journal and NBC News that “job creation and economic growth” was either the first or second most important problem the country faces. That’s high. But it is down markedly from four years ago, when 68% of potential voters thought that way. The figure was down, too, from the 59% of voters who thought economic issues were most important in the 2008 election, even before 8.8 million people lost their private-sector jobs.

As time passes and the recession fades, it’s natural for people to move on. Early in President Obama’s second term, America finally recovered the jobs it lost after our financial meltdown. Today, we have 3.4 million more private-sector workers than we did during President Bush’s employment peak. Home prices, too, have been recovering for three years. They’re now 30% above their 2012 low, and only 17% below their bubble-era high. Americans have shed debt. Mortgage debt is down by $1.2 trillion, back to where it was in 2006. Total household debt is down to where it was in 2007.

People even like the banks — a little bit — again. Starting last fall, slightly more Americans viewed banks positively than negatively, the first such showing since 2007.

As people feel better, they cease holding grudges — good news for the Republicans. As recently as last year, 44% of Americans blamed Bush for our “current economic problems — still a remarkable showing for someone who had been out of office for six years. Only 34% blamed Obama; another 14% blamed both. Yet the number was down from 57% blaming Bush on the eve of Obama’s 2012 re-election.

The problem for the GOP, though, is that people have stopped blaming Bush — and, by extension, all of them — only because they’ve stopped caring quite so much. As the economy has improved, voters have remained satisfied with President Obama’s economic performance. In April, 49% thought he was doing a good job here. That was up from a low of 37% in early 2011, when we still had six million fewer jobs than we had in 2008. (Bush’s economic-approval rating on the eve of the 2008 election was 20%.)

Unfortunately for the Republicans, then, it’s not a bad time for a Democratic candidate to run — largely on continuing Obama’s economic record. It’s especially not a bad time if you happen to be the spouse of the previous Democratic president, who presided over the biggest economic boom the country has seen in most people’s lifetimes.

Can the Republicans turn the economy into an advantage for them — or, at least, into less of a disadvantage?

Yes — but not by doing what they usually do. They can’t run against Obama’s record. The proof is that they tried it in 2012, and the effort failed spectacularly. The “are you better off today than you were four years ago” strategy that worked for Reagan in 1980 failed because voters could see — well before most economists did — that it was always going to take more than four years to recover from the debt mess we made for ourselves in the years before 2008.

Nor can Republicans sit around and wait for something bad to happen in the final few months — and then blame Obama and the Democrats. That’s not because nothing bad will happen; it could. Much of our recovery is fueled by record-low interest rates. Even without a fresh financial crisis, even marginally higher interest rates could sink house prices and consumer spending as well as car sales. But with the trauma of the 2008 crisis still so fresh in people’s minds — this is a time when people were calling their relatives wondering if they should leave money in the bank, after all — there’s still no guarantee people won’t revert back to blaming Bush.

Nor can the Republicans stick to their general economic playbook: marginal across-the-board income tax cuts and fewer regulations. The average person’s federal income-tax rate — 15 to 25% — just is not on the list of his most pressing economic problems, which include skyrocketing local property-tax rates, education costs and healthcare costs; having no retirement savings; and the terror of losing a job altogether. Fewer regulations sound good to policy wonks — but most people only think about regulations when they want something regulated. Almost nobody is in favor of dirty air and water, especially not the younger voters that a winning GOP candidate will need.

Mavericks vs. Moguls

So what can a Republican do that’s different? Give a (Bill) Clinton-style speech detailing the slow recovery and the real economic harm it’s done — but then don’t blame the Democrats. Blame 30 years’ worth of economic missteps made by presidents of both parties, from Reagan to Clinton to Bush. Under Reagan, the candidate can say, we saw our manufacturing base erode without protecting middle-class, blue-collar workers from cataclysmic income drops from which they’ve never recovered. Under Clinton and Bush, we deregulated banks and Wall Street so that the financial system could lend ever more money to Americans to make up for that eroded income. In trade policy, immigration policy and elsewhere, both parties have favored big corporations without thinking of what happens to the little guy.

No one has ever really told the truth — and it’s the fault of both parties. A candidate could say: It ends now, even if I upset a lot of people in my own party with what I say and propose. A Republican can point out that Hillary Clinton, with millions of dollars in family-foundation donations and speech payments from Wall Street banks and multinational corporations, is hardly the person to achieve real change from 30 years’ worth of status quo. And finally, when people ask about banks and bank bailouts, criticize the banks and the bailouts — something that Mitt Romney was never willing to do.

This strategy would be hard. It would require a candidate to criticize his own party, and, if Jeb Bush were to be the candidate, his own brother. The policy prescriptions that go along with it are hard, too, at least for an old-fashioned Republican candidate.

We need huge income boosts to middle-class workers — say, married families making under $125,000 a year—including big tax credits for childless and older adults as well as for parents with children. People should be able to make unlimited tax-free contributions to their retirement and other savings accounts, including for education and healthcare savings. People who make under $50,000 should get matching government credits in low-fee retirement accounts. The country needs a massive infrastructure program, along with changes to union-wage requirements to be sure that we can build more infrastructure — and create more jobs — for every dollar spent. Where will the money come from? For now, it will come from bondholders, but over time, yes, under our progressive tax system, it will come from wealthier taxpayers.

A brave Republican could gain some traction here — and that candidate will need it. Yes, Hillary Clinton is a creature of the financial and corporate world. But should she win the 2016 primary season, she may come out of it stronger. Sixty-one percent of Democratic voters still care deeply about the economy, while only 42% of Republican candidates do — meaning the Democratic nominee may come out better versed on the issue because of primary-season focus.

Primary Pressures

Then, too, Clinton’s main primary opponents — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb — are already pushing her to be tougher on banks and large corporations. O’Malley has made ending “too big to fail” one of his top issues. He wants to reinstate the Glass-Steagall law, which Bill Clinton repealed. Sanders has introduced similar legislation, as has Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is keeping a close eye on Hillary Clinton’s economic and financial policies. If Clinton wins, then, she may emerge with a less big-business-friendly message than the one her husband pushed a quarter-century earlier, because she has to — and it will be a message that post-2008 voters want to hear.

The eventual Republican nominee, though, faces a minefield of possible missteps in his own primary. Remember Mitt Romney saying “corporations are people, my friend” in 2011? And the maverick candidates on the GOP side don’t spend much time on the economy or financial system. Rand Paul comes close to it only in his proposal to “audit the Fed” — a call that’s never gained much traction in the past. Paul’s page on regulations doesn’t even mention bank regulations. Other mavericks have their own issues, from Ted Cruz on the Constitution to Ben Carson on Obamacare to Carly Fiorina on getting ahead through merit. But they’re unlikely to help the winner hone a winning economic policy. That’s probably why, already, the mainstream candidates—from Marco Rubio to Jeb Bush — have been quiet on economic and financial policy.

It is early days. But it’s not too early for the GOP to figure that after two lost presidential elections, they’re going to have to do something different to win a third.


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