It’s not about the economy, stupid.
Anybody who watched the latest debate among Republican presidential contenders could easily draw that conclusion. During a very long three-hour session, the 11 candidates on stage discussed just about everything that’s been in the news lately, with one exception: An economy that’s underperforming and a job market that’s leaving many Americans behind.
Here’s a loose outline of the topics in the order they came up in the debate:
Donald Trump’s character – role of outsiders in the race - Russia - Syria - Iran - Middle East - China - foreign policy - gay marriage - Kim Davis – Planned Parenthood - government shutdown - Carly Fiorina’s face – immigration - Trump vs. Fiorina as business leaders – TAX REFORM (sort of economicky) – MINIMUM WAGE - world dangers - Supreme Court – legal marijuana - crime – gun rights – NATIONAL DEBT – FEDERAL BUDGET - climate change – vaccines - women - Ronald Reagan.
Four of those topics – tax reform, the minimum wage, the national debt and the federal budget -- touched on jobs and the economy. Still, Chris Christie apparently felt the economy deserved more attention, since he interrupted an argument between Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina over who’s a better business leader to point out that viewers at home don’t really care. Said Christie:
“The 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn't have a job, who can't fund his child's education, I've got to tell you the truth. They could care less about your careers, they care about theirs. You know who's not successful? The middle class in this country who's getting plowed over by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Let's start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.”
That was about the extent of it. No follow-up by anybody, no plans for creating better jobs, no talk of Jeb Bush’s dream of somehow boosting economic growth from the lackluster 2.5% range we’re in now to a robust 4%.
To be fair to the candidates, the CNN moderators set the agenda for the debate, and CNN obviously felt the hot-button topics of immigration, the Iran nuclear deal and everything Donald Trump says would interest viewers more than boring ideas about how to reduce income inequality or make the middle class more prosperous.
CNN might have guessed wrong on that. Though unemployment has dropped to 5.1% and job growth has been pretty strong, the last 6 years represent the weakest recovery in decades and Americans still rate economic issues their top national concern. In the latest Gallup poll, 17% of Americans cited the “economy in general” as the nation’s most important problem, while 8% cited unemployment. Combined, that’s 25%. The next biggest perceived problem is “dissatisfaction with government” (17%), followed by immigration (12%) and race relations (7%).
About halfway through the CNN debate, moderator Jake Tapper began a question by saying, “We've received a lot of questions on social media about the economy and about jobs.” His question, though, led to the Trump-Fiorina debate over their respective resumes, with no actual talk about the economy other than Christie’s exhortation. Every other comment about jobs for the rest of the debate was a general insistence that we need more good ones. Kind of like calling for clean air.
With the economy steadily improving since the last recession ended in 2009, voters have become gradually less worried about it. Here’s the portion of voters citing the economy as their biggest concern in several recent elections:
2008 presidential election: 63%
2012 presidential election: 59%
2014 midterms: 45%
But there’s still plenty of woe. A new government report, for instance, finds that median household income is still 7% lower than it was 15 years ago, after adjusting for inflation. That means the typical family has been falling behind and experiencing the kind of financial stress that occurs when bills get bigger but income shrinks.
If the GOP candidates overlooked those problems in the latest debate, their Democratic rivals are happy to fill the void. Bernie Sanders’ whole campaign is aimed at ordinary Americans not benefiting from the crony capitalism propelling those at the top. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was sending out emails castigating the GOP candidates' economic plans before the CNN debate even ended. She ought to know how important that is—she was there, after all, when her husband Bill won the White House in 1992 by staying focused on “the economy, stupid.” That’s probably still a good idea.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.