Republican lawmakers are currently defying one of the most widely accepted laws of political thermodynamics: for every economic motion there is a parallel and sympathetic political reaction. Or, as the Cajun Clinton whisperer James Carville put it, “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Okay, so it’s not exactly a law. But what’s good for the economy is good for whatever crew is running the government–especially the White House division–has proven a pretty good rule of thumb. As has its reciprocal. If the Dow Jones skitters down a gopher hole it’s a good bet the president’s approval rating is also going subterranean. Just ask Bush 43. Or Bush 41.
Which is why the GOP currently seems to be defying political gravity. By just about any measure the economy is rocking. The stock market sizzles, unemployment is 4 percent, GDP growth is a robust 3.2 percent, and a tight labor market has wages on the rise, which is good news for the lunch pail sectors that repeatedly got the shaft while the one percenters expanded their goldmines. When the git-yer-jollies-on money machine cranks up pols instinctively know there’s credit to be claimed in them thar dividends. So given all the economic positives, the piggy backers, windbags and horn blowers in charge should be huffing through a victory lap, throwing humblebrags to the voters, and sailing toward comfortable reelections.
Yet our GOP overlords seem to be reaping little of the political reward that normally accrues to lawmakers lucky enough to rule at the hilly end of the business cycle. Indeed, as measured by popular approval ratings, they are getting slammed. Forget rodent holes. Republican poll ratings are so low they have to look up to see gopher butt. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are stuck in the 30s, which is historically terrible, but still nearly double that of Republicans and their leaders in Congress (Mitch McConnell’s public approval is roughly the same as the tatometer rating for Showgirls which is, well, not good). Dozens of Republican members of Congress aren’t even waiting for the voters to render a verdict on their record of governance. So many have announced retirement there’s been a run on gold watches. What in the name of Milton Friedman is going on?
It’s a multi-variate world and there’s more than one reason why the economy is going up while the GOP’s popularity sinks lower than gum stuck to a submariner’s shoe. Certainly the, um, character issues of the president have something to do with it. There are many ways to ding your party’s reputation, and certainly doing stuff like referring to vast swaths of the planet as “shitholes” and paying hush money to porn stars is right up there. Especially if you already have a permanent case of the tweet trots and spent the past a year cementing a reputation as a chaos artist. True believers please feel free to insert here the obligatory all-purpose, all-caps snappy comebacks here. FAKE NEWS!!! WHAT ABOUT HER EMAILS!! Persuasive stuff, as always.
Now that’s out of the way, let me say I don’t think it’s just Trump’s coarse and immature shenanigans that has the Republicans in trouble (though it sure hasn’t helped). A big part of the problem is that Republicans continue to govern as if they swept into office on the back of a clear mandate, and they weren’t. According to the Federal Election Commission, there were roughly 180 million votes cast for Democratic candidates in 2016 (this is the combined total for president, Senate and House), and about 168 million cast for Republican candidates.* In other words, as a whole the American electorate had a slight, but clear, preference for the Democratic Party. And it got a wholly Republican government.
There’s nothing wrong or suspicious or nefarious about this. The whole federal electoral system is based on state and sub-state constituencies, there is no nationally elected office (the president is elected by the states through the Electoral College, not the people), and parts of it are wildly malapportioned (the United States Senate). So the way the math works out, it’s not exactly a shocker that one party can be elected to control government even though, overall, it has less support among voters than the party consigned to the minority. The GOP won fair-sies square-sies and those still whining to the contrary just don’t understand the system.
Yet winning isn’t enough to make a go of governing. I’ve made this basic point before, but it bears repeating: the weird situation of a party controlling a democratic government when it was opposed by most voters at the polls means governing style really matters. Writing laws in secret (and employing industry hacks as ghostwriters), bending norms and rules to avoid bipartisan engagement (or even debate) might work if a sizeable majority is cheering you on. The problem for the GOP is they have no such constituency. And they’re unlikely to get one if they keep doing what they’re doing. Indeed, a plurality of the electorate (perhaps even a majority) already seems to view them less as agents for the American people, but as a group that sold its soul–not to mention its dignity–for power. That creates a big legitimacy problem.
Specifically, it translates into a lack of public approval, economy be damned. An ill-advised approach to process, treating indefensible proclamations from the party chief with situational amnesia, vacuous appeals to alt-facts, etc., etc., all this starts to catch up. Smart conservatives–and there’s still plenty around–have been shouting about this for a while (David Brooks, Jeff Flake, Charlie Sykes, even Ben Shapiro). It’s just that their own side isn’t listening. And they should, because at some point it’s not the economy, stupid, that’s the issue. Sometimes it’s just the stupid.
*There were also about 18 million votes cast for non-major party candidates.