HAt the end of the election and lagging behind by a substantial margin in the polls, Donald Trump is pinning his political hopes on winning voters with cash.
Over the past month, the president and his team united around a series of policies that would result in billions of dollars being allocated to critical constituencies from the start of the vote: a proposal to dramatically increase government loans in African American communities, an order to send seniors a $ 200 rebate card for prescription drug purchases and a new desire for an ambitious stimulus package to deal with the fallout from COVID-19.
Critics view the slice of ideas as tantamount to government-sanctioned voter buyouts. The tax conservatives have bristled in private. But the president may see them as his latest electoral panacea. The only question is whether he can withdraw the money quickly enough.
“It’s smart policy and smart policy,” a senior Trump campaign adviser said. The goal, added the adviser, was to reaffirm a framework that worked well in 2016: “one side sees you as the forgotten man and the forgotten woman who is worth fighting for, and the other you considers it deplorable and irremediable. “
Trump’s frantic race to put money in the hands of critical ridings comes against the backdrop of a campaign that is fighting for political momentum. What surprises some observers is not that he is now trying to push his way out of that hole and into a second term, but that it has taken him so long to start doing so.
“I think embracing the populist (and popular) part of the vision he was elected to have might have mattered, but we’re way past the point where those surges of desperation can change the course of the race.“
– GOP Strategist Liam Donovan
“It’s a real head scraper, and we will consider it a huge mistake,” said GOP quarterback Liam Donovan. “I think embracing the populist (and popular) part of the vision he was elected for might have mattered, but we’re well past the point where those surges of desperation can change the course of the race.
In 2016, Trump ran for president as an unorthodox Republican, eager to remind voters he wanted to protect rights agendas, revamp free trade agreements, and spend large sums on things like infrastructure. The recipe barely worked. And for a while, Democrats rushed to adjust to the possibility that the Republican Party claimed the mantle of working class populism.
But that panic began to fade when Trump took office, choosing to pursue Obamacare repeal, massive tax cuts and a deregulation program on things like infrastructure investments and declining prices. prescription drug prices. Looking back now, some Democrats can’t believe their luck.
“As far as the way he ruled, he has been a traditional fiscal conservative, down the line, on virtually every subject,” said Representative Brendan Boyle (D-PA). “No doubt about it. If he had truly governed in an economically populist manner, I think he would have been in a stronger position.
But the problem Trump faces, sources surrounding his campaign have conceded, is not only that his government agenda does not match his populist promises, it’s that his re-election campaign message has also abandoned those promises. . His opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has many of the same vulnerabilities Hillary Clinton had in 2016. Biden voted for major trade deals that Trump says led to the ruin of the Rust Belt. And Biden’s close ties to the credit card industry have allowed former opponents to accuse him of siding with corporate interests over consumers.
And yet Trump has largely focused his attention elsewhere. Data collected by Bully Pulpit Interactive tells the story of a re-election campaign that relied much more on conspiracy theories and culture war issues than on messages of economic recovery and relief. The Trump campaign has spent more than ten times as much on ads mentioning or relating to the ‘far left / Antifa’ in recent times than on economics advertising, and over 35 times as much as on ads mentioning trade , a question of Trump’s signature, according to this data from Bully Pulpit.
“The Trump campaign has spent more than ten times as much on advertisements mentioning or relating to the “far left / Antifa” recently than advertising relating to the economy.“
From September 12 to October 3, the Trump campaign spent about $ 3.5 million on ads citing terms such as “socialism,” “fake news,” and “Clinton,” compared with less than $ 130,000 on ads about the US economy, roughly $ 400,000 on those who mention small business and only $ 42,500 on those who mention “commerce.”
This drifting focus and competing impulses were again apparent last week, as Trump said he was abandoning efforts to negotiate a new coronavirus relief deal with Democrats in Congress only to do a sharp 180. .
For months, several conservative allies of Trump had been listening to the president, trying to convince him to neutralize stimulus talks and ultimately to abandon any vestige of his right-wing economic populism.
On Tuesday, shortly after Trump tweeted that he was blowing up negotiations, Stephen Moore, a longtime conservative economist and informal adviser to Trump, said he and his colleagues were happy with the news and had a long time advised the president of other stimulus packages would be “counterproductive”. Moore added that he had met Trump last month at the White House and told him that following up on negotiations with the Democratic leadership would, in his opinion, be economically disastrous, as well as politically unwise, as any significant boost involved. to the stimulus would not. don’t register with voters before the November election.
At the same time, some populist-minded conservatives were dismayed that the President would forgo giving Americans a financial lifeline amid high unemployment and a deadly pandemic; especially the one who came just before going to the polls.
Trump has sometimes flirted with direct stimulus payments. But he never committed to a bill. His main objection to Democrats’ legislative demands was efforts to include large sums of money for state governments, which could help ease budget deficits and boost their own economies amid a crippling recession. “They just wanted to deal with the failure of Democrats, high crime, cities and states,” the president mocked at the demands of his opponents.
It was a complaint that fitted into a broader theme of Trump’s election year message: that the increasing levels of violent crime, racial unrest and sometimes violent protests against police misconduct and the high rates of coronavirus infection are all problems that Democratic mayors and governors across the country have. have created. But, for Democrats, it was astounding. They gave him a huge check to spend on the voters and he refused.
“The irony here,” said Guy Cecil, who heads the super PAC Priorities USA, is “if the Republicans got to [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s number [for a large stimulus bill] it would help the president politically, not the Democrats.
By the end of the week, Trump seemed to have understood this point. He started asking for stand-alone bills to bail out specific industries. Friday morning he had authorized support for $ 1.8 trillion deal– as part of what House Democrats demanded, but without specifying the provisions he would support. In the early afternoon, he said he wanted more.
“I would frankly like to see a bigger stimulus package than what the Democrats or Republicans are proposing,” he told Rush Limbaugh. But his own White House quickly contradicted this claim. They would accept up to $ 2 trillion, a spokesperson said– less than the $ 2.2 trillion sought by Democrats.
And that is part of the problem. While Trump may now want these checks, it’s unclear whether the rest of his administration or his party wants them. Senate Republicans seem reluctant to support a stimulus package that will match the one the president is now suddenly launching with bravado. And House Democrats continue to oppose the specifics of what the administration is asking for, saying it is not doing enough to address the fundamental problems caused by the COVID crisis.
And even if everything is done before the election, that may not be enough to save Trump’s campaign. An 11th hour check, critics say, cannot erase the past four years.
“His rhetoric remained semi-populist when he was able to squeeze it between the traditional economic approach of large Republican companies on the supply side. It’s hard to do both, ”said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH). “Part of it is because he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The trade deficit is on the rise, jobs have been outsourced, factories are closed. So there is not much to say about populist, at least rhetorically.
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