early and often

Will the Republican Economic Message Die If Inflation Ends?

Sticker shock at the grocery store may be a thing of the past. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s still too early to know what sort of economic conditions (real or perceived) will affect persuadable voters in 2024. But it’s sure looking a lot better for Joe Biden’s Democrats than it has for a good long while, as Paul Krugman observes:

The latest numbers on consumer prices arrived on Wednesday, and they were better than even optimists had expected. Even media reports, as far I can tell, generally omitted the “but concerns remain” qualifiers that have seemed mandatory when covering good news about the Biden economy …

[The numbers] strongly suggested that we may be heading for a soft landing — a return to acceptable inflation without a large rise in unemployment.

While this is great (albeit tentatively great) news for the party controlling the White House, it presents a real problem for Republicans who have been rehearsing a Chicken Little message on the economy for many months now. If it’s taken away from them, what will they do? The situation is potentially dire enough that some GOP pols are already talking about it publicly, as The Hill reports:

The anticipated recession that was supposed to hit this year amid rising interest rates hasn’t yet materialized, leaving some Republicans wondering if they need to revise their messaging.

“I think it will diminish as an issue over the course of the year if inflation continues to stay down and continues to go down,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).  

Some Republicans say they don’t want their party to get straightjacketed into repeatedly attacking Biden and Democrats on inflation when data shows the economic environment is changing and there are other issues that voters care about, such as illegal immigration, national security, rising crime and drug addiction.  

It’s true, of course, that Republicans don’t always let objective reality control their claims about the Donkey Party. The total opposition of nearly all elected Democrats to the idea of “defunding the police” didn’t keep GOP mouthpieces from relentlessly asserting that every single Democrat was avid to cut law enforcement and let criminals run wild. Aside from just denying the facts on inflation, moreover, Republicans can legitimately talk about the cumulative effect of past inflation on Biden’s watch, as Romney suggests: “People are paying almost 20 percent more for goods than they were paying before President Biden became president.”

But if the economy unquestionably improves between now and November of 2024, some significant recalibration of the GOP case against Biden and his party will be in order. And the odds are high that the already large investment of Republicans in cultural wedge issues will balloon. That will require some skill: The views of the party’s MAGA base on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights are significantly out of the national mainstream. And while Republicans can get some base and swing-voter mileage out of criticizing teachers unions and the educational Establishment, the passionate desire of many conservative Evangelicals to destroy “government schools” altogether and seize tax dollars for sectarian and homeschool instruction isn’t necessarily an electoral winner.

What you can expect if the economy fades as an issue is a poll-tested focus on gender identity, race-conscious social-justice policies, and “religious liberty” controversies where Republicans are on firmer ground in terms of public opinion, along with intensive demagoguery on the law-and-order topics of border security, fentanyl deaths, and crime. Describing Joe Biden’s America as a weak and woke dystopia incapable of dealing with external threats like China is a lot easier if people are struggling to make ends meet and fear unemployment. As it is, Republicans may have to argue that voters should ignore their material well-being and gird up their loins for culture war. Certainly, if their presidential nominee is Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, they will have a leader willing to make that perilous case in the loudest and most lurid terms imaginable. But victory would be a lot easier to achieve if the voters who only care about their pocketbooks saw no reason to go back to the “greatest economy ever” of the last Republican administration.

Will the Republican Economic Message Die If Inflation Ends?