January 27, 2015
Yesterday, I posited Marco Rubio is well positioned to capitalize on Iowa when the voting moves to New Hampshire. That’s a good thing for him, because he needs a few breaks now. His glide path to general acceptance (if not necessarily nomination) was interrupted by two things. Negative candidates and negative ads.
The Boston Herald (with Franklin Pierce University) has a new poll out for New Hampshire. This is one of seven polls taken by six pollsters in the 12 days since the last debate. Donald Trump leads in all seven, on average by 20 points. In all but one instance, his total is more than the 2nd and 3rd place candidates combined.
Trump’s message is not 100% negative 100% of the time. But he’s not a ray of sunshine. Those clouds won’t part until he’s inaugurated. Until then, the government is incompetent, other countries are taking advantage of us, our border is a sieve, and millions of people have given up on finding a job.By the way, two-thirds of Americans regularly tell pollsters the country is on the wrong track, Congress has an approval rating under 20%, nobody is willing to certify the border is secure, and workforce participation is at or near 40-year lows.
Rubio entered the contest with a mostly positive message. If he could take over before Hillary Clinton could add on to the mistakes of Barack Obama, Rubio would help transition the economy for the 21st century, reform entitlements, grow the economy, reinforce the military and stand up to foreign enemies.
I think that was his pitch. That’s part of the problem. We know what Trump’s pitch is. It was comical at first. I couldn’t believe someone could say the same thing so many times. It also didn’t seem like an economic policy. Most of us thought the policy was Trump is smarter than the current losers.
After hearing the refrain for several months, it’s now clear the policy is only do things that seem like in America’s best interest. Try to win every deal, every exchange. Be opportunistic. Talk down your opponents at every turn. If someone is threatening you, push back, make them uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to antagonize a friend, negotiate with an enemy.
This does not match recent American policy. By recent, I mean any time since World War II, arguably several decades further back in some ways. To fight the Cold War, a number of consensus decisions were made by the then political establishment. Among them was a desire to rapidly build up the economies of Japan, West Germany, et al as a bulwark against the Soviets.
The U.S. promoted free trade partly to benefit domestic exporters and partly to help NATO and other allies. Between the Marshall Plan and savings from operating under the American defense umbrella, European democracies were able to ramp up and purchase plenty of American goods, both consumer products and industrial equipment.
For the first couple decades, this was the ultimate win/win. After the late 1940s/early 50s, there was no threat of an Italy, Greece, Turkey, or Japan going communist at the ballot box. The thriving West German economy was an important contrast with the performance of East Germany and the rest of the Soviet Bloc.
It also provided a means to integrate the capitalist side of Germany with Western Europe, as an ally and key economic partner, rather than a rival and threat as in the previous several decades. Meanwhile, the American economy grew and wages for middle-class Americans expanded quickly.
Whether it’s Trump or Bernie Sanders referring back to when America used to win, or when working class Americans were doing relatively well, this is the time period both are thinking of. It was also a bit of a protected historical anomaly, when a United States that got to build up industrial capacity during a war that destroyed Europe and Japan’s had enough of an advantage to pay assembly line workers vastly more than anyone else did.
Beginning in the 1970s, America began running a trade deficit. The original culprit was oil, which became expensive and something increasingly dependent on imports. As Japanese finished consumer goods moved higher and higher up the food chain, from cheap toys and radios to cars and large televisions, an enormous trade gap developed.
Against this backdrop, Dick Gephardt ran for the Democratic nomination in 1988, wanting to equalize trade rules. His target was the Hyundai Excel, a car that sold for $6,000-8,000 in America, but based on trade rules of the time, a similarly priced American car would cost $48,000 in South Korea.
That ad won him the Iowa caucus. It didn’t get him much farther. In 1992, Ross Perot picked up the baton and warned of the dangers of the NAFTA trade deal with Canada and Mexico. He did better than any third party candidate since 1912, but fared poorly in a debate with Al Gore on the subject after the election.
Bill Clinton got the deal through Congress and trade warriors have stayed mostly silent or in the background since. Until Trump.
Where was the rumble from Middle America, working-class Americans, etc.? The 1980s and 1990s brought fairly broad-based growth. The tax cuts and tax reform in the 80s did lead to a general increase in business investment. The IT and Internet revolutions hit America first. Domestic companies led the charge, both in production and implementation.
Forty million jobs were created in the two decades. Wages weren’t always high, but with more and more two income families, overall household income rose. With New Deal Democrats discredited as an option, presidential-led policy was relatively consistent across party lines.
Jimmy Carter began deregulation in the late 70s, Reagan followed and then some. Clinton was the most pro-business Democrat in at least a century. By the time the NASDAQ bubble burst in 2000, there were signs of future danger. China was rising as an economic power.
Twenty years before, when Deng Xiaoping began experimenting with Special Economic Zones, China was a communist economic midget. These baby steps were positive signs, and further evidence opening formal relations was a benefit in tipping the Cold War balance.
Even in 1990, China’s exports were relatively modest. Americans worrying about Asian competitors were focusing on the new Tiger economies of South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Wal-Mart was a regional discount chain with a charismatic founder.
The 2000s were different. American wage and employment growth stalled. An asset price bubble and easy access to cash-out refinances allowed the economy to expand even with poor underlying metrics. This further postponed a conversation about the path to future broad-based prosperity.
When everything fell apart in 2008, rather than prompting that debate, focus understandably shifted to putting out the fire. When President Obama spent the largest amount of his political capital on health care, it further obscured the debate about the future of the American economy and how to create high-paying jobs for Americans of average education and skills.
Mitt Romney did not engage in this debate in 2012. Nor did most of his primary opponents. They savaged Obamacare. Given the results thus far, their criticisms were on point, but again, not the same issue. Romney talked about tax policy. Lower taxes are great, but many Americans were already paying little in federal income tax.
With Democratic leaders normally favoring some form of free trade, cozying up to big banks, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and various sundry forms of the global economy, there’s been little consistent debate on what to do about regular Americans and how to position the country to stay competitive.
On the left, this creates an opening for Bernie to say regular people are getting screwed. The reason many Americans aren’t afraid of democratic socialism is because we haven’t talked about economic systems for generations.
In a world where we don’t discuss economic policy, why would a thirty-year-old fear something just because of the name? When Sanders says he just wants to provide what Europeans have, or Trump says he’s going to start making better deals, why would somebody choose to believe their opponents instead?
Back to Rubio. He’s not showing enough details on the economic side. Based on all of the above, why did any of us figure he would break through the clutter to get a plurality of Republicans on board with his economic policy?
It rarely comes up in debates. When it did, and Rubio had the chance to talk about vocational programs, he did well, and though perhaps only coincidentally, his numbers improved. It’s why Jeb Bush can’t sell his 4% annual GDP growth. Nobody believes, and he hasn’t had the time or inclination to really explain it to larger audiences.
Apparently Jeb gets plenty wonky in a town hall, and Rubio likely discusses the economy in more depth there too. I’ve seen some decent YouTube clips. Even in New Hampshire and Iowa, most voters don’t actually get to an event for a given candidate. As we know, if they do, it’s often for Trump or Bernie.
Rubio does not regularly talk about the economy when he’s on a Sunday show or doing an interview on one of the Fox News programs. As much as many don’t agree with Bernie, he always talks about his economic policy. Always. Maybe there aren’t the details Hillary thinks he should have, but always that outline, that message.
Trump too. Between them, they have the support of approximately half of all New Hampshire voters. Nobody else is demonstrably explaining how their approach to the economy differs from what Obama has done (in Hillary’s case) or what George W. Bush did (for the GOP squad).
After 10 years of net limited job growth and 15 years of negative wage growth for average Americans, the mainstream candidates aren’t making enough of a break with the recent past or doing enough explaining in front of larger audiences.
Hillary may be able to get away with saying Bernie’s ideas are neat, but he can’t implement them. However, she may also manage to lose the first two states, with all hell breaking loose if she does, by failing to provide an alternative vision.
The negative of billionaires controlling everything, while 90% of Americans have nothing is a powerful message, if there’s no coherent positive alternative. At the moment, the only clear alternative is sending Carl Icahn to Beijing to make better deals.
When Jeb gets on a show and talks about Trump not being ready to govern, not being sufficiently conservative, not being serious, he’s shooting the messenger and the tone of the message, but avoiding the underlying voter concern that gives it a home.
Ted Cruz does have traction. Ted Cruz has a mostly negative message. Obama is terrible. Hillary is terrible. The Washington Cartel is terrible. All of the above have a hand in the results of the past 15 years, so he’s not without basis here. The national debt is $19 billion and climbing. The world isn’t real safe. Congressional Republicans did not deliver on campaign promises.
To Cruz, backing down is a sin. This isn’t entirely different from what Trump and Sanders are saying. It’s not very different at all. This is also how Trump and Cruz can slam each other without a third candidate swooping in to take some support. Normally, if Candidate A and Candidate B are in a slugfest, the beneficiary is Candidate C.
John Kerry won the 2004 Iowa caucus by taking advantage of John Edwards and Howard Dean playing demolition derby. Why isn’t this working out for Rubio? Because Trump and Cruz also aren’t giving in to each other. Those who prefer The Donald are glad he’s hanging in and begrudgingly respect Cruz for fighting. Same in reverse.
A while back, I said something about a poll. At one point, Rubio was extremely popular with the GOP electorate. They weren’t completely sold yet, but very open. The Boston Herald surveyed New Hampshire favorability ratings four times between August and last week. Compare Marco to Trump:
August: Rubio +41, Trump +6
October: Rubio +40, Trump +13
December: Rubio +39, Trump +14
Now: Rubio +19, Trump +19
Even in August, Trump led the field, but it was with modest 18% support. Now he’s at 33% in the same poll. Various candidates have disagreed with deporting undocumented citizens. They’ve rejected banning Muslims from entering the country. They’ve said any number of things about Trump himself.
While it’s possible some voters are just bigoted, xenophobic, or some combination thereof, it’s more likely the failure of other candidates to address economic concerns (now listed as #1, ahead of terrorism or foreign policy even among GOP voters) is the bigger factor.
As Rubio has stalled or failed to attempt making a full economic argument, the attacks from Jeb and his PAC, Christie and his PAC, and Cruz are starting to impact his ratings and top line poll numbers. If like Trump, he had wrapped himself in the mantle of his voters, these attacks would have stiffened his supporters’ resolve.
Instead, Rubio was liked by many, loved by few. He didn’t have the crowds of Trump, the contributors of Cruz. He didn’t have any new, controversial policies. If someone is one of your two or three favorite candidates and you start hearing some bad stuff, they move a little down the list.
Now, after he’s lost some top-line momentum in New Hampshire, only 39% of his remaining supporters are firm they’ll vote for him. Cruz has 58% of his people fully on board, Trump 76% of his. There’s a cost in being a Trump supporter. Some of your neighbors will look at you differently. There’s no cost in being a Rubio fan. No cost, easy to abandon.
Rubio is the most conservative of the establishment-certified candidates. He’s the most telegenic. He’s the smoothest communicator, the best debater. You can see why Jeb, who has failed just as badly in making a case, but is otherwise less appealing, is struggling even more.
John Kasich does have traction in the Granite State. He and Cruz are currently jockeying for second place in the polls. He’s not negative. He is building a case for himself as being able to fix economic problems for every day Americans. But it’s taking him damn near forever. So far, his pitch isn’t translating on the debate stage or in national interviews.
Even with a bounce from finishing second, he’s a less suitable national candidate than Rubio, as long as Marco can pull his act together in time. In retrospect, his two key errors were challenging Cruz on foreign policy in the immediate aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino, and changing his tone in a more negative direction the past couple/few weeks.
The logic on his foreign policy venture was sound. Cruz has voted to limit funding for defense programs, is less interventionist. Rubio is very comfortable discussing national security issues. He figured standing up for traditional GOP values was a winner. It wasn’t and actually helped Ted, who is more in line with how many voters are thinking.
It’s another version of the economy problem. Rubio wasn’t willing or able to explain to voters why his approach would work this time after the various failures of interventionist Middle East policy over the past few decades. He thought he was preaching to the choir, but in fact Cruz was.
His sharp turn towards criticism of Obama and away from promoting a New American Century didn’t help either. As mentioned above, the first idea didn’t work because Rubio didn’t go far enough, not because he was too focused on a happy future.
From a distance, it sounded like we should vote for him because his mom was a maid, his dad was a bartender, and he was running for president so that today’s kids could grow up with that dream.
Given the events of the past fifteen years, he needed to fill in the dots to get enough buy-in, carefully explaining what he would do differently from W, not just Obama, but the outline is good.
Instead, he pivoted to Obama is a disaster, Hillary would be a bigger disaster because she would block our chance to save the country, and I can beat Hillary. Others already have that pitch down better. More importantly, if you can’t beat Trump yet, don’t start yapping about how you’ll defeat Hillary.
Gotta get there first. Nobody is questioning whether he can appeal to the general election audience. Voters are wondering if he deserves the chance to try.
Reports from the field indicate Rubio is back in the sunshine, back to his more positive message. It still needs more detail and more focus on the economy. All other avenues are blocked. Jeb has the wrong name and the wrong delivery. Christie has a tougher record to defend.
There are still plenty of voters who want a non-Trump, non-Cruz choice. A good third of the GOP electorate wants to wrap their arms around someone else. A slice of people could still be persuaded to abandon the leading two. But Marco has to give them more. Like my old math teachers used to complain to me, show your work. Voters won’t buy in until you do.