Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The three-day government shutdown last Saturday has sharpened the debate about which party has the advantage going into the midterm elections in November, and which will profit from another possible shut-down if the February 8 deadline for coming up with a solution for the expiring DACA program isn’t met. More interesting than these analyses and prognostications is what they say about the pundits’ estimation of the American people’s ability to sort out the style “sizzle” from the policy-success “steak” come November.
The Democrat instigators of the current shutdown are for now paying a political price for bluffing and then caving to the Republicans, even though Republicans usually are blamed by the media and voters who have tarred them as the mean and greedy party of small government that always wants to starve the big-government Leviathan. Before the shutdown this received wisdom got support from A Washington Post poll that reported 48% of those polled would blame Republicans, 20 points more than those who’d blame the Dems. In fact, a later poll put 58% of voters blaming the Democrats.
Despite this seeming victory for Republicans, however, many still see the outlook for November as dim. Trump’s approval ratings, which are around 40%, 15 points behind his disapproval numbers, are at a historical low. The generic ballot poll asking people which party they prefer in November has the Dems ahead by 8 points. Democrats have been winning special elections lately, including a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama that had been Republican for 30 years, and most recently a the 10th State Senate district in Wisconsin, one held by Republicans for 17 years. The general consensus of Trumpophobes (e.g. here) from both parties is that the president’s abrasive and vulgar Tweets and comments, and his callous, if not racist, dismissal of immigrants during negotiations with Democrats in Congress, are undermining the party and threatening its success in November.
But these advantages may not help the Democrats if they engineer another shutdown in February. After all, any shutdown is obviously the work of Chuck Schumer and the Democrats. In January, the Republicans voted for a bill to keep the government running and to fund some Democrat priorities. Yes, the Republicans control both houses of Congress, but most people know that it takes 60 votes to override a filibuster, meaning that the minority can block legislation. As for the Dems, if they oppose again budgeting funds for the military and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, they will have to explain to voters why they cut-off our soldiers pay and 9 million beneficiaries of CHIP, just because they didn’t get all they wanted for the DACA recipients, the so-called Dreamers whom Obama amnestied with an executive order clearly unconstitutional, and destined to be ruled so by the Supreme Court.
Perhaps voters will credit the Republicans for trying to save the program by legalizing it, and fault the Democrats for their maximalist demands ––legalizing extended families of dreamers, keeping chain migration essentially intact, and scanting funds for the border wall that many Democrats are on record voting for––that threw members of their own constituency under the bus. Not to mention the perception that the Democratic leadership cares more for immigrants and their well-being than they do the welfare and security of American citizens.
Moreover, the Dems’ hypocrisy on this issue is blazingly clear. Back in 2013, shutting down the government was called “legislative arson” by Nancy Pelosi, and hostage-taking and blackmail by Chuck Schumer. This time many voters may see that the Democrats’ intransigence as purely partisan, created by an irrational hatred of the president and a desire to retake the government not to improve the country, but to undo the 2015 election, not to mention legalizing illegal aliens they see as a key to their party’s electoral success.
Finally, this perception will be helped along by a hysterical media and politicians obsessing over Trump’s style rather than explaining what’s wrong with his policies. The recent ridiculous hour-long grilling of the doctor who gave Trump his physical, with questions about the president’s diet and prospects of sudden death, was creepy as well as farcical. The rank bias and ad hominem excesses of the mainstream media against the president are another factor that may make a difference next November, given the media’s low credibility numbers, currently at 38%.
As for the polls on the shutdown now trending in the Republicans’ favor, and some upward movement in Trump’s approval ratings, they are inherently transient, and subject to events and the biases of the outfits doing the polling. But the same is true for Trump’s negative polls and their impact come November. Distinguish between a vague “approval” and specific policies, and the numbers tell a different story. In January, Trump’s approval rating for how he handles jobs and the economy was at 54%, according to a Harvard-Harris poll. Perhaps what _The Wall Street Journal_’s Daniel Henninger calls the “Trump Paradox” ––disapproval of his style and manner joined to approval of the job he is doing on the economy––makes things different. As Henninger wrote, if Dems can punish Republicans in the midst of real improvement of the economy, “It will be a remarkable accomplishment … a victory not linked to an opposition’s major policy failure, an unpopular war or economic downturn.”
And Trump’s achievements on this score are obvious and substantial to a degree not seen since Ronald Reagan. In February, 80% voters will start seeing in their paychecks the $1000-$2000 extra courtesy of the tax reform bill; 164 companies giving their workers pay hikes and bonuses from $1000-$3000; the Dow reaching 26,000, up 31% since Trump was elected; Apple saying it will repatriate $245 billion in profits held overseas, pay $38 billion in taxes, and invest in creating up to 20,000 new jobs; jobless claims at their lowest level in 45 years; 2.2 million jobs created; a historically low black unemployment rate of 6.8%; and cuts in regulations worth $8.1 billion, along with the reduction of the corporate tax rate to 21%, have restored the economy’s “animal spirits,” all leading to New York Fed’s estimated 3.9% growth in GDP for the fourth quarter, following two previous quarters above 3.0%.
All that’s the “steak,” the real accomplishments often not captured by opinion polls that measure personal approval or disapproval. Likability polls instead measure what Trump’s critics are trying to sell–– Trump’s objectionable “sizzle,” some violated standard of decorum or manners or acting “presidential” that reflects the class biases and prejudices of one part of the American people. It’s the New England John Adams sensibility that has ever contrasted with another important part of America: the Scotch-Irish Huck Finn one. It’s Boston Brahmin John Quincy Adams blowing off frontier-born Andrew Jackson’s inaugural ball because “KING MOB,” as Chief Justice Joseph Story called Jackson’s “deplorables” ––” “seemed triumphant,” despoiling the White House furniture, jostling the ladies, and imbibing too much moonshine.
Finally, behind the predictions of Republican demise because of Trump’s brash, straight-talking, vulgar style is the unspoken assumption that most of the people are incapable of discriminating between optics and substance, words and deeds. Despite Bill Clinton’s law ––“It’s the economy, stupid” –– our predictors of Republican doom think that the extra money in the people’s paychecks will be cancelled out by Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric and barnyard metaphors.
And this is what’s revealing about such predictions of voter behavior: they tacitly assume that the people’s incapacity for critical thought and discrimination is far inferior to the critics’. After all, the people’s vulnerability to sophistical rhetoric that ancient critics of democracy decried is exponentially worsened by our historically unprecedented, 24⁄7 bombardment of information, legions of Internet sites spreading dubious information, carnival of deceptive images, and incessant cycling of news and videos changing every millisecond. How can we expect people to filter out the noise from the signal and not be led astray?
From that antidemocratic perspective, the midterm election will be a referendum not just on Trump and the Republicans, but on American voters. Will they be able to distinguish between the specious and superficial “sizzle” and the nutritious “steak?” Barring some unforeseen crisis or scandal, in November of this year we will have an answer.