We’re about to see whether James Carville, the dark genius of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, knew what he was talking about when he posted the famous warning to the Clinton campaigners in the war room of campaign headquarters in Little Rock: “The economy, stupid.”
The sentiment has become Gospel in the war room of every presidential campaign since. Health care, foreign affairs and immigration are important — everybody knows that — but in a prosperous economy everyone is happy, and in a failing economy when everybody feels the sting, nobody’s happy.
Until now. With the economy humming, unemployment hardly measurable, black and other minority joblessness shrinking to historic lows and every day bringing in the sheaves of unexpected good news, you might think this abundance of happy news would have Republican poll numbers headed for the stratosphere.
The stratosphere appears to be out of reach — no economy has been there yet — but the economy is clearly headed that way. The National Federation of Independent Business, representing the small businesses that provide most of the jobs in any economy, issued its monthly survey Thursday and it strongly suggests that the good times that arrived with Donald Trump are likely to continue.
The small-business companies say they’re trying to figure out how to expand but it’s not easy because they can’t find the qualified workers needed to do it. “Thirty-eight percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period,” William Dunkelberg, the chief economist for the small-business federation, tells The Wall Street Journal.
Experience warns the Republicans they should expect to lose two or three dozen seats in the House. That’s what happens at midterm. This year that could mean losing as many as 40 seats. The Democrats have succeeded in making the midterm elections a referendum on the president, not on his performance in the White House, but on his character, his personality, his likability, the way he combs his hair, and most of all because he thrashed them so handily two years ago. Hillary had already measured the windows for new curtains, a return to the high fashion standard she established in the Clinton White House.
The Democrats know better than to run on the economy this year. Job creation was solid in October, with more jobs than job-seekers. “Competition for qualified workers is pushing up compensation,” says Mr. Dunkelburg, “especially for the better trained and educated employees. Small businesses have not experienced this level of labor-market related challenges since the late 1990s [and the explosive demand] for computer and programming specialists. Current labor shortages, though, are more broadly distributed across industries.”
The president sees these figures, too, and can’t resist his enthusiasm. But why should he? He correctly notes that the employment numbers are the best in a half-century. “That’s wonderful,” the president says, “but we actually need workers now. That’s a good thing to be saying because that hasn’t been said for many, many decades.” Perhaps one “many” would be enough, but the president has a point, and there’s more.
“We want people to come in. You’ve all been reading about the immigration situation with the caravans and all, but the fact is we want people coming into the country. We want them to come in legally.”
The president invites criticism and even Democratic ridicule with some of his speech-making. He seems not to fully understand that presidents don’t have the luxury of making an off-hand remark, a private joke, a clever bon mot. He will never have “them lyin’ newspapers” to tidy up after him, as they frequently tidied up for the president before him.
Donald Trump has delivered on many of the promises he made during the campaign that put him in the White House, and that’s what has enraged the more-or-less loyal opposition. Tax cuts, the soaring economy, the rebuilding of the military, two Supreme Court justices dedicated to restoring the Constitution and an attempt to straighten out the mess on the southern border. Many of these things are exactly what the left does not want straightened out.
If he had been content to do what previous conservative presidents did, to talk about what a great thing it would be if he could do all these good things and one day he surely would, the Democrats would have been pleased to give him a nice (figurative) pat on the head and everyone could have got on with civility, the rage this year.
But he actually set out to do these things, and that’s not the way the Washington game is meant to be played. If the Democrats take the House, we can expect the game to get meaner. Chuck and Nancy and Maxine promise an impeachment party, and it will be an exercise in ultimate futility. But we’ll have fun breaking some furniture.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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