Republicans Aren’t Bragging About the Economy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On the day last week when one associate of President Donald Trump was convicted of federal crimes and another pleaded guilty, a Republican politician who would only talk about his party’s problems on background sighed that he could find one favorable sign.

It wasn’t the robust economy or soaring stock market. It was the arrest of a Mexican farm worker whom the authorities called an illegal immigrant in the murder of an Iowa college student.

Immigration-bashing is a higher priority for many Republican candidates this year than the tax cut that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the party’s midterm-election campaign. An economy that grew at a 4.1-percent clip in the second quarter, the fastest in four years, and an unemployment rate down to 3.9 percent, appear to be of only marginal value to the incumbent party.

In commercials and campaign oratory, Democrats are accused of favoring open borders, sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. They’re accused of being soft on violent gangs of foreign origin like the El Salvador-based MS-13 and opposing construction of a wall along the Mexican border.

The scarcity of economic claims shows the Trumpification of the Republican Party on full display.

With some exceptions, Republican congressional candidates are waging a campaign of fear, hurling frequently false charges. In races for seats in the House of Representatives, scores of candidates warn that their Democratic opponents would be lackeys of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, despite the fact that many of them have explicitly stated that they won’t vote for her for speaker if Democrats capture the House.

Most, though not all of these Democrats are do not favor establishing more sanctuary cities or abolishing ICE. None advocate open borders or champion violent gangs. They do oppose building an expensive and unnecessary border wall.

Trump immediately seized on the Iowa killing, which he blamed on the Democrats’ failure to crack down on illegal immigrants whom he falsely holds responsible for a nonexistent epidemic of mayhem. The Iowa murder suspect appears to be an undocumented worker who had worked for four years for a reputable company headed by a prominent Republican and showed no previous sign of a violent streak. Most reliable studies show that undocumented workers commit crimes at a lower rate than the general population.

Trump’s demagoguery is neither new nor a surprise. It’s worth asking, however, why so many Republicans are following suit and are not, as they once vowed, running mainly on a positive message about the economy and tax cuts.

Perhaps the low approval ratings of Trump and congressional Republicans would be worse if the economy weren’t so strong. More salient is that many voters don’t think they’re benefiting. Wages remain stagnant, with real weekly earnings rising only 1.4 percent since Trump took office.

That makes it tough to campaign on a buoyant economy, even amid a record bull market.

Since their enactment a year-and-a-half ago, the Republican tax cuts have become less popular. In a number of contested races, starting with a special House race in western Pennsylvania early this year, it’s been the Democrats who talk about the tax cuts. They argue that the Republican tax measure was skewed heavily to the rich and corporations, shortchanged working-class families while adding trillions to the deficit, and was intended to give Republicans an excuse to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Even in upper-income suburbs where Republican-leaning, college-educated women are turning against Trump, the tax cut doesn’t seem to be a political plus. The affluent Washington suburbs represented by Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock, one of the most resourceful and endangered incumbents, includes Fairfax and Loudoun counties, two of the wealthiest in America.

The tax bill showered benefits on many of the district’s voters. But it also put a $10,000 ceiling on deductions for the region’s high state and local property taxes. Since winning the June primary against an under-financed Trump-loving opponent, Comstock has focused more on the threat of MS-13 gangs and illegal immigration.

That was the same strategy adapted last year by Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie. He was trounced by Democrat Ralph Northam, losing Comstock’s district by 12 percentage points.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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