"Let Reagan be Reagan" conservatives cried when their champion made his first run for the White House, and it turned out to be good advice. "Let Trump be Trump," cries none other than Donald Trump himself, who has decided to replace the team of professional campaign advisers who want him to be more, er, presidential, with unseasoned Trumpkins who "make him feel good."
Last week Trump made clear that he intends to reverse plunging poll numbers by reverting to the slash-and-burn tactics that won him the nomination of a still-fractured Republican party. He is running out of time. The election is on November 8, but 37 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting. Ballots will be cast in Minnesota, South Dakota and the District of Columbia only 64 days from now. Estimates are that the last time we chose a president, 31.6 percent of all voters opted to beat the official voting day by casting their ballots early. Which means that there is little time for Trump to reverse the negative image so many voters now have of him, so intensely negative that it is pushing voters to choose the almost equally distrusted Hillary Clinton in this race between two of the most disliked candidates ever to vie for the right to redecorate the White House. Some 60 percent of voters say they are "dissatisfied" with both candidates.
That competition of the disliked has produced two diametrically opposite views of the state of the economy. Trump sees "disaster" wherever he looks. Millions of Americans have given up looking for full-time work, which makes the official unemployment rate of 4.9 percent "one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics." He visits Detroit and sees urban decay, surveys the American economy and sees disused factories and coal mines, which he promises to restore to health by ending unfair trade and currency manipulation. Clinton sees something different: an economy that has added more than 10 million jobs since the end of the Great Recession, a Detroit area that is home to an auto industry saved from bankruptcy by President Obama and now turning out a record number of vehicles, new high-tech industries that are fueling urban revival. More of the same is promised when she raises taxes on the rich until the point just before her Wall Street supporters abandon her. Trump sees a glass totally empty, Clinton one that is not quite overflowing but, thanks to Obama, is surely more than half full. He would Make America Great Again, she says it is already great, although she claims that under her leadership it will become greater still.
The real pity of the Trump campaign is that the candidate's infantile behavior has detracted from the fact that his policies in many ways are more in tune with voters' preferences, and with what the economy needs, than are Clinton's.
- Trump wants to impose limits on immigration that sound sensible in an era in which terrorists easily infiltrate refugee groups; Clinton is more or less for open borders and for welcoming even illegal immigrants.
- Trump understands the roles tax cuts and regulatory reform can play in stimulating growth and raising all boats; Clinton has only higher taxes and still another multi-billion stimulus program to offer.
- Trump has some sense that destroying America's fossil fuel industry is not a good idea; Clinton would do just that with punitive regulations and massive subsidies for renewables.
- Trump wants to repeal and replace Obamacare; Clinton now favors a government-operated health care option of the sort that necessarily requires rationing of care.
- That doesn't mean that some Clinton proposal are not better that those on offer by Trump. If she holds to the Democratic platform she will push for a carbon tax that all economists agree is the way to meet the possible threat of climate change, which an overconfident Trump is willing to gamble is a hoax perpetrated to justify expansion of government. Clinton has some quite sensible proposals for avoiding the excesses to which the financial sector is prone; Trump would repeal Dodd-Frank.
Two things will matter most as we approach election day. The current state of the economy, and how voters "feel" about their own prospects. One factor that importantly affects both the reality and the perception is the course of gasoline prices. Although there are rumors that the OPEC cartelists, led by Saudi Arabia, which in other contexts poses as an American ally, are about to strike a deal with nonmember Russia to cut back oil production and drive prices up, voters will most likely be driving to the polls in November in a record number of SUVs consuming fuel purchased at an average price of less than $2 per gallon. Gasoline now sells for $2.15 per gallon, 20 percent lower than it was last year at this time, and the government's Energy Information Agency is predicting the price will hit $1.95 by the fourth quarter, which includes the November 8 election date.
That should help Clinton, for two reasons. First, it will put billions into the pockets of voters, giving the languid economy a bit of a boost. Second, because gasoline is purchased frequently at a price visible at the pump and from roadside signs, voters will know that they are getting a bargain, adding to the all-important "feel-good factor."
Not all of the data lead to such clear conclusions. The housing market remains strong, with housing starts up 2.1 percent in July over June. But permits to build new homes declined by 2.2 percent in the first 7 months of this year compared with a year earlier suggests that the future outlook is at minimum uncertain. The good news is that the share of homeowners whose mortgages exceed the current value of their homes is down from its 2012 peak of more than 30 percent to 12.1 percent, and that foreclosures are at their lowest level since the latter 1990s. But that leaves about 9 million homeowners who are, to use the industry's term, still underwater. And many are located in key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, probably a modest plus for Trump.
Worse still, many homeowners who borrowed on the equity in their homes and paid only interest for the first ten years are now being called upon to begin repaying principal. And missing monthly payments, which for someone with a $100,000 loan at 4.5 percent interest will jump from $376 to $632 per month. Banks are reporting rising delinquencies. That adds to the discomfort of hard-pressed lower-to-middle income groups find their static real incomes, rising health-care and repayment costs troubling. Throw into the mix outstanding student debt of $1.3 trillion, with a 12 percent delinquency rate, and you have a plus for Clinton, who is promising debt relief of some sort for the delinquents and other student borrowers, and free or debt-free college for all. Assuming, of course, that the more than 60 percent of Americans who deem her untrustworthy believe she intends to translate her campaign promises into action.
Trump should benefit from the turmoil in health-care markets triggered by the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. He has promised to repeal and replace it. Clinton, in effect running for a third term for Obama, is on the spot. The 16.4 million people who have obtained health care insurance under Obamacare, many in poor health, are delighted with their coverage and most will support her. Not for them a worry that not-for-profit Blue Cross Blue Shield plans lost $1.5 billion last year selling individual policies on the Obamacare exchanges in five states. But the many more millions of healthy Americans who are facing double-digit increases in their premiums—29 percent to 62 percent, depending on the carrier, in Tennessee—to subsidize the unhealthy or pay for unwanted or unneeded services are upset. Most annoyed are middle-income Americans, their household incomes yet to recover to the level reached in 2007, who will not receive the tax-funded subsidies for which poorer Americans are eligible. Trump's charge that the system is rigged against the middle class will resonate with this group, especially as giant insurer Aetna will no longer offer policies in 11 of the 15 states it now serves, and Humana and UnitedHealth have joined the exodus by abandoning many counties, often leaving customers dependent on a single insurer.
Clinton, under pressure from socialist Bernie Sanders, now proposes an alternative to the private system—the so-called public option, a government-operated health care system along the lines of your NHS. But only 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters from the non-partisan Pew Research Center that government programs are well run, and only 19 percent trust the government all or most of the time. Meanwhile, the bills for the higher premiums will hit mailboxes right around Election Day, a lift for Trump.
It is difficult to say what these crosscurrents will produce. Voter turnout is expected to be high as voters troop to the polls to vote for the candidate they dislike least. A high turnout will favor Trump if his white, lower-income, blue-collar workers turn out, and Clinton if Sanders's new recruits to socialism switch to her as they are promising to do.
Over 60 percent of Americans believe both that the country is on the wrong track, and that they will be financially better off next year than they are now. My guess is that both majorities are right, and that issues other than personal finances are quite properly driving the wrong-track pessimists, not least the decline of American power and prestige that is a consequence of policy failures from the Middle East to the South China Sea.