Now that Larry Kudlow has assured us that he sees no sign of a coming recession, we can be surer than ever that one is probably on the way.
One is tempted to cheer this development, but come on. We can’t be cheering for people to lose their jobs (some of which, by the way, would undoubtedly happen in the already wobbly realm of political journalism).
But we can still allow ourselves the pleasure of contemplating the likely political impact of a recession. Getting Donald Trump out of office after one term is, obviously, a matter of the greatest urgency. As of now, Trump’s approval numbers are about where they’ve always been: around 42 percent approve, and 53 percent disapprove. The general consensus as I understand things is that Trump’s hard-core base is maybe 33 or 34 percent, meaning he gets the approval of 8 or 9 percent who aren’t MAGA-heads but are happy with the economy.
If the economy goes south, one has to assume he loses most of that 8 or 9 percent, which would put him down in the 36 or 37 percent approval range. And once approval numbers go down, recent history suggests that they tend to stay down. For example, George W. Bush, at 90 percent after 9-11, crossed into negative territory after his hideous response to Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005 and not only never recovered, but kept on sliding—into the mid-20s by the time he left office.
So if Trump gets down to 36 or so, history tells us he’s not likely to nudge back up even if the economy begins to recover by next November. He also has the weirdest economic team in the modern history of the country, so the odds are decent, as Catherine Rampell noted in The Washington Post, that Trump and Kudlow and company will bollix things up. It’s pretty hard to see how an incumbent polling at, say, 38 percent can win 49 or 50 percent of the vote.
On the other hand, let’s not get overly sanguine about all this. Trump will in fact get millions of votes from people who tell pollsters they disapprove of the job he’s doing. There are only two choices in an election, or maybe three, and incumbents usually benefit from a little lesser-evilism. So it will matter, if there is a recession, how the Democrats handle it. And the main thing they’ll need to do is simple: They need to talk to rural and small-town America.
There was a lot of talk about this after Trump’s victory, with what seemed like a story about visits to diners in “Trump country” for each of Hillary Clinton’s nearly 3-million-vote lead in the popular vote. But it’s true that just a few more of those voters in 2016 would have meant a very different reality today—and could again in 2020.
One of the central economic facts of our time is the huge divide between cities and well-off suburbs on the one hand and rural and small-town America on the other. All cities have pockets of deep poverty, of course, but in general, cities and high-tech suburbs are doing great. Small towns, not so much. It’s in that America—rural, red, Republican—where any recession is likely to hit hardest.
Consider these eye-popping statistics, gathered by the Economic Innovation Group. They studied the recoveries after the last three recessions. After the early 1990s recession, 71 percent of new business growth occurred in counties with 500,000 or fewer people (and nearly half of that in counties with 100,000 or fewer people). After the early 2000s recession, that 71 percent shrank to 51 percent. Then finally, after the 2008 collapse, that number was down to 19 percent. All you have to do is drive through these places and see the proliferation of Dollar General stores, which saturate poor areas (there are about 15,000 Dollar General stores in America, and 30,000 dollar stores all told; by comparison, there are fewer than 5,000 WalMarts).
Rural America is hurting big time, and in any recession, it’s bound to be the hardest hit. Farmers are feeling the effects of Trump’s tariffs, but it isn’t just farmers. Opportunity has all but vaporized in a lot of these places. Democrats need to do something about this.
They don’t talk enough about rural and small-town America, and it’s probably because they don’t get many votes there. But they can change that. And if they want to beat Trump, they have to. Yes, turnout among core Democratic groups has to be maximized. That’s a given. Everybody understands that.
But everybody doesn’t understand that very often, the difference between winning an election and losing one is the difference between getting totally swamped in small towns and running competitively there. No Democrat is ever going to win in small towns (with the exception of college towns). Guns and cultural issues will see to that. But the key thing is to get 40 percent there instead of 25.
After the midterms, I wrote a piece in The New York Review of Books in which I compared the vote totals of Beto O’Rourke, running for Senate in Texas, and Sherrod Brown, running for re-election as senator from Ohio. Both cleaned up in the cities and university towns. But in the smaller counties, Ted Cruz regularly pummeled O’Rourke, getting 70 or even 80 percent of the votes. Brown, in contrast, got around 40 percent in many of the counties of Appalachian Ohio, near the West Virginia border. Brown of course won, and O’Rourke narrowly lost.
Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will need to emulate Brown. The way to do it is through economics. There should be no compromising on guns or other such issues. That will only alienate the base. And again, the point isn’t to win these areas. It’s just to convince 10 or 15 percent of the voters that you care about them and will try to bring some opportunity back to their towns.
Elizabeth Warren, being Elizabeth Warren, has a plan for rural America. She wants to offer incentives for more medical professionals to serve rural areas; have the government purchases farmers’ crops if they can’t sell them on the private market; expand broadband; encourage farmers to move to more environmentally sustainable methods; and more. Joe Biden has an interesting-looking plan too. One intriguing feature: reinvest in the agricultural research of land-grant schools so that the public, not private companies, own the patents for agricultural innovations.
The plans are there on paper. But the Democrats also need to learn how to talk country again. The speaker is from San Francisco, the Senate leader from Brooklyn, and the leading candidates for the nomination are from Boston, San Francisco, and Wilmington (okay, but it’s still a city). Nothing against these people or these places. But the party’s identity is almost totally urban. If there is a recession, and if the Democrats want to take full political advantage of Trump’s woes, they’ll need to work to change that a little.