Watching the latest GOP madness from the House, I wondered why Republicans weren’t smart enough to stay narrowly focused on economic issues where they currently hold a big advantage with actual conditions likely to worsen it. I thought about it and posted this explanation at New York:
Even as the horrendous dysfunction afflicting House Republicans dominates the headlines, polls continue to show the GOP in a good position to maintain and extend its power in 2024. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Republicans lead in the generic congressional ballot (basically a measure of which party voters want to control the U.S. House) by a point (44.4 percent to 43.4 percent). And their wildly erratic and indictment-prone presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, similarly leads Joe Biden in 2024 general-election trial heats by an average of 45.5 percent to 44.4 percent.
There are multiple reasons offered for this anomaly of the crazy-person party holding a lead, ranging from the president’s age to some sort of national malaise. But the most obvious reason from the data we have is that solid majorities of Americans are unhappy about the economy and blame Biden for it. A new Marquette Law School national poll shows Trump being preferred to Biden on handling the economy by an astonishing 52 percent to 28 percent margin. It’s hardly an unusual finding. Here’s what ABC’s Gary Langer said after the latest ABC/Washington Post survey came out:
“Forty-four percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say they’ve gotten worse off financially under Biden’s presidency, the most for any president in ABC/Post polls since 1986. Just 37% approve of his job performance, while 56% disapprove. Still fewer approve of Biden’s performance on the economy, 30%.”
And that’s with most major economic metrics looking relatively sunny. If the economy takes the negative turn next year many forecasters expect, what then? How much Trump craziness might swing voters tolerate to get back that sensational Trump economy they remember (or imagine)?
Looking at the situation from a different angle, how much are Republicans unnecessarily hurting themselves by both tolerating Trump’s high jinks and displaying their own in the U.S. House? Why don’t they exhibit some self-discipline by getting onto the obvious winning message and chirping like cicadas: Economy! Economy! Economy! I’m quite certain there are Republicans in boardrooms and country clubs all over America wondering just that.
Before getting to the heart of the matter, it’s important to acknowledge a couple of factors that lead Republicans to be less than entirely mono-vocal, aside from their varying ideological and geographical backgrounds. There are some issues, notably the situation along the southern border, and — in some parts of the country — violent-crime rates, that benefit them so much that ignoring them would represent political malpractice. The Marquette Law School poll cited above showed Trump leading Biden on “border security” by exactly the same margin as his advantage on the economy. Plus, of course, it’s a signature issue for Trump and the MAGA movement he created. There are other issues, notably abortion, that are more important to key Republican activists than all the economic indicators past, present, or future. Trump is probably straining their patience by urging the GOP to downplay its unpopular views on abortion policy.
But the key thing to understand in processing wild Republican rhetoric on issues like congressional appropriations is that they and their supporters deeply believe the country’s economic problems are almost exclusively caused by excessive public spending and government overreach. Risking a debt default to rein in deficit spending strikes most Democrats and nonpartisan observers as playing an insanely dangerous game with the economy. Plenty of Republicans can’t imagine anything more dangerous and irresponsible than trillion-dollar budget deficits and unlimited public borrowing. For people who think that way, forcing a government shutdown is an absolute no-brainer. It has to be done again and again until the spending and borrowing stops.
To be sure, the wild extremism of so much Republican rhetoric on government spending is fed by non-economic concerns about objects of all that spending. According to some conservatives, Democrats are bankrupting the country and tanking the economy in order to finance radical assaults on freedom like COVID shutdowns, vicious assaults on Christians and their institutions, a vendetta against fossil fuels and those who use them or depend on them for jobs, and the partisan weaponization of law enforcement to prosecute conservatives and liberate looters and killers. Many of them also seem to think Biden is determined to spend the U.S. to death in order to save Ukraine as payback for bribes. Donald Trump seems to regard government spending as strictly designed to keep him from returning to the White House. But it’s also telling that complicity in deficit spending is one of the rare issues on which otherwise craven Republicans like Nikki Haley are willing to criticize the 45th president.
While it’s impossible to sort out all the different evils with which Republicans associate “big government” and “runaway spending,” there’s no question that when they rage about these things they believe they are addressing the same economic concerns that their voters, as well as swing voters, want them to deal with urgently. Keep that in mind as you watch House Republicans choose a new Speaker against a backdrop of fresh promises to radically pare back federal spending.