Jennifer Rubin: Trump's political safety net hangs by a thread

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Anthony W. Orlando writes for The Washington Post about the economic fortunes of counties that voted for Trump:

"Trump counties — and especially counties with higher proportions of Trump voters — continue to fall farther behind the rest of the country economically. The story of our economy, like the story of our politics, continues to be a story of division and divergence. ... The average Trump county added 1.13 percent more jobs, while the average Clinton county added 0.49 percent. These increases are quite small, especially considering that significantly fewer jobs existed in Trump counties to begin with.

"Housing prices tell a similar story, with even more data stretching into 2018. Regardless of how I compare the counties, Clinton supporters consistently come out on top."

None of this should be surprising, because President Donald Trump hasn't done much of anything for these Americans. His tax cuts for the rich and for corporations (which used tax savings for stock buybacks) didn't help them. Moreover, Trump's trade policy has hurt rural America.

In the Trump economy, the rich get richer, while the poor and the poor locales in the United States get poorer. ("Statistically, there appears to be no significant improvement in job growth. The gap in housing price growth actually widens. In fact, the larger the Trump electorate and the larger the degree of Trump support, the worse the county's economic performance.")

If Trump had anything resembling a rural development policy or an infrastructure plan or a meaningful worker training policy, we might see improvement in Trump country. Instead, we see the toll of income inequality in which the gap between rich and poor — as well as between rich and poor regions — grows.

Moreover, this is all happening in the context of a very strong economy. What happens when the economy cools?

Economic prognosticators see the economy slowing down as the sugar high from the tax cuts wears off. Goldman Sachs, for example, sees GDP growth at "2.9 percent in 2018, 2.5 percent in 2019, 1.6 percent in 2020, and 1.5 percent in 2021." Couple that with Trump's tariff war and an already softening housing market, and you will the full impact of Trump's economic policies. ("The National Association of Home Builders on Monday said its housing-market index dropped by eight points to a reading of 60 in November, well below economists' expectations and the lowest level in more than two years.")

The Post reports: "More than a third of top forecasters believe the U.S. economy will enter a recession in 2020; and a new Reuters poll of economists found they think the probability of a recession in the next two years is rising, to a median 35 percent. (The Fed projects GDP will slow to 2.5 percent next year, a 2 percent in 2020, before slipping to 1.8 percent in the longer run.)"

While debate rages about whether the economy will tip into a recession, few economists expect that the economy will be doing better in 2020 than it is now. And that, politically speaking, is potentially disastrous for Trump and even his most dogged fans in red states. Economically insecure Americans will feel the pain first and most acutely, so when Democrats ask them and other Americans whether they are better off than they were in 2017, the answer could well be no.

Former car czar Steven Rattner noted that Trump already performed worse politically than predecessors given the economy. "As President Trump has often bragged, he went into this election with consumer sentiment at a historically high level," Rattner explained. "Indeed, only one other president (Bill Clinton in 1998) enjoyed such strong sentiment on the eve of a mid-term election. But unlike Mr. Clinton, who was handed a pick-up of five seats in the House, Mr. Trump will end up losing about 39."

Despite Trump's false bravado, "That is the third worst showing since this consumer confidence series was first compiled in the late 1970s. During this four decade time period, seven incumbent presidents saw their party perform relatively better, despite consumer sentiment levels lower than Mr. Trump's."

Now imagine Trump's 2020 performance if the economy is weaker than it is now.

In sum, Trump's economic promises to his rural base haven't been kept. His policies either ignored rural voters or made their finances worse. They've stuck with him more or less during a time of overall prosperity, but for them as well as for other Americans still struggling to regain their economic footing from the financial crash in 2008, an economic downturn between now and the 2020 election might send Trump's approval rating and reelection prospects spiraling downward.

Democrats in the meantime would be wise to develop an economic program that helps rural America close the gap with more prosperous parts of the country and directs tax benefits and spending to those who aren't rich already. If Democrats offer something demonstrable better for Trump voters than what Trump has offered, these voters would be foolish not to dump Trump. After all, they want to start

winning again.

Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

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