Why Republicans Abandoned Their Economic Message

The economy, moreover, is a ripe political issue. Yes, unemployment remains astonishingly low, but inflation is still rampant and hopes of a “soft landing” are beginning to diminish. Wages have grown but haven’t kept pace with rising prices. The economy remains phenomenally unequal. And Republicans have a very recent example of exploiting a weird, mixed economy for electoral gain: Back in 2016, Donald Trump won the election in part by hammering the fact that millions had been left behind by economic changes wrought by globalization, promising to bring back millions of jobs, and grow the economy by four percent. That message resonated, particularly with voters who lived in areas where the economy was struggling and in the industrial midwest.

None of that happened, of course—in office, Trump’s economic agenda was mostly bog standard GOP policy (tax cuts for corporations and the rich) with a tariff or two thrown in. Nevertheless, his platform in 2016—tariffs, rolling back globalization, bringing back manufacturing jobs—worked as catnip for the GOP base. Republicans have since abandoned it.

A big reason why is that Donald Trump managed to turn Republican voters away from the old GOP economic agenda of lowering taxes on the rich and gutting everyone else’s earned benefit programs without ever fully replacing it with anything that resembled the populist vision he briefly touted on the hustings. Trump made it clear that rolling back Social Security and Medicare was not a winning electoral argument. Republicans have listened, and have made half-hearted, dishonest pledges to protect those arguments. But this promise has merely slid next to a contradictory one—that the party will reduce the deficit and balance the budget.