January 25, 2024
Today a report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis showed strong economic growth of 3.3% in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2023, setting growth for the year at 3.1% (by comparison, in the first three years of Trump’s term, before the pandemic, growth was 2.5%). A year ago, economists projected that the U.S. would have a recession in 2023, and forecast growth of 0.2%.
Meanwhile, unemployment remains low, wages are high, and inflation is receding. As Gabriel T. Rubin put it in the Wall Street Journal today, “The final three months of the year looked a lot like the soft landing Fed officials are seeking to achieve.”
There is a major political story behind this impressive economic one. Since 1981, lawmakers have insisted that cutting taxes, regulation, and the social safety net would create much faster and more efficient growth than was possible under the system in place between 1933 and 1981.
In the earlier era, lawmakers regulated business, imposed progressive taxes, and supported workers to make sure that ordinary Americans had the resources to fuel the economy through their desire for homes, consumer goods, and so on. But with the election of Republican president Ronald Reagan, lawmakers claimed that concentrating wealth on the “supply side” of the economy would enable wealthy investors and businessmen to manage the economy more efficiently than was possible when the government meddled, and the resulting economic growth would make the entire country more prosperous.
The problem was that this system never produced the economic boom it promised. Instead, it moved money dramatically upward and hollowed out the American middle class while leaving poorer Americans significantly worse off.
When they took office, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris rejected “supply side” economics and vowed to restore buying power to the demand side of the economy: ordinary Americans. They invested in manufacturing, infrastructure, small businesses, and workers’ rights. And now, after years in which pundits said their policies would never work, the numbers are in. The U.S. economy is very strong indeed, and at least some voters who have backed Republicans for a generation are noticing, as United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain made clear yesterday when the union made a strong and early endorsement of President Biden.
So here is the political story: Republicans cannot run for office in 2024 by attacking the economy, although Trump has tested that message by saying the economy is “so fragile” and “running off the fumes” of his administration and that it will soon crash. He has promised to cut taxes again, which is not likely to impress many voters these days. Media stories are beginning to reflect the reality of the economy, and people are starting to realize that it is strong.
At the same time, the Republicans are in huge trouble over their overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing the constitutional right to abortion. A poll taken in June 2023, a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, showed that 69% of Americans want to see Roe reinstated. But, to appeal to their base, Republican leaders are backing more, rather than less, extreme measures: a federal prohibition of abortion.
So the MAGA Republicans, who back Trump, need an election issue. They are trying to turn the migration influx at the southern border into an issue that can win for them in November. In December 2023, extremist House Republicans refused to pass a supplementary funding bill that is crucial to Ukraine’s effort to resist Russia’s 2022 invasion, insisting that the “border crisis” must be attended to first, although they refused to participate in the negotiations that Biden and senators promptly began.
Then, after news hit that the negotiators were close to a deal, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Fox News Channel personality Laura Ingraham told the television audience that they had both spoken to Trump and he opposed a deal. Negotiations continued, and last night, journalists reported that Trump was pressuring Republican lawmakers to reject any deal because he wants to run on the issue of immigration and “doesn’t want Biden to have a victory.”
Today, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) told CNN’s Manu Raju that “the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling.” Attacking Romney on social media, Trump said: "[W]e need a Strong, Powerful, and essentially 'PERFECT' Border and, unless we get that, we are better off not making a Deal, even if that pushes our Country to temporarily 'close up' for a while, because it will end up closing anyway with the unsustainable Invasion that is currently taking place,” which he called “A DEATH WISH for the U.S.A.!...”
Now, after insisting the border issue must be addressed and riling up their base to believe it is the biggest crisis the U.S. faces, MAGA Republicans are in the position of having to refuse to address the problem. So they are escalating their rhetoric, claiming that the bipartisan deal to address the border is not good enough.
That dilemma is especially clear in Texas, where voters are very angry over reproductive rights in the face of Texas’s draconian laws, which have produced high-profile cases in which white suburban women—a key voting demographic—have been forced to leave the state to obtain abortions to protect their health. Texas governor Greg Abbott is also searching for a viable political issue since his signature policy, school vouchers, failed late last year. According to Patrick Svitek of the Texas Tribune, money has been pouring into the Texas primaries as Abbott and Texas attorney general Ken Paxton try “to unseat House Republicans who crossed them.”
When the Supreme Court on Monday permitted the federal government to cut razor wire that was blocking federal agents from reaching parts of the border, including the crossing where three migrants died last week, MAGA Republicans urged Texas to “ignore” the ruling (although it came from a right-wing court), and Abbott launched a war of words against the federal government over management of the border.
In a construction that appeared to echo Civil War–era declarations of secession, Abbott asserted Texas’s “constitutional authority to defend and protect itself.”
Twenty-five Republican governors have issued a joint statement supporting “Texas’ constitutional right to self-defense.” Their statement accuses Biden of attacking Texas, using the right-wing talking points that the administration is "refusing to enforce immigration laws already on the books" and leaving the country "completely vulnerable to unprecedented illegal immigration pouring across the Southern border."
House speaker Johnson has also posted: “I stand with Governor Abbott. The House will do everything in its power to back him up. The next step: holding Secretary Mayorkas accountable.” (Johnson refers here to the impeachment effort against Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in which the Republicans wrote articles of impeachment before holding any hearings.) Trump called for “all willing States to deploy their [national] guards to Texas.”
But Paxton (whose trial on charges of securities fraud is set to start in April), asserted this right in court last September, and Abbott suggested today that his moves are part of an attempt to create a record for a court case challenging the long-standing precedent that the federal government, not the states, has jurisdiction over border issues.
Observers worry that Texas’s stance is a modern version of the secession of the American South from the Union in the months before the Civil War, and perhaps in one way, it is. In the 1850s, elite southerners’ management of the South’s economy had thrown huge numbers of poor white southerners off their land and enabled a few men to amass huge wealth and power. As dispossessed white men became restive against the economic policies of human enslavement, southern lawmakers shored up their own slipping popularity by warning of the dangers of federal government meddling in their business.
Here’s another way in which that era might inform our own. In the 1860s, southern leaders’ posturing took on a momentum of its own, propelling fire-eating southerners into a war. As MAGA Republicans are talking tonight about fighting the federal government and as Trump calls for “all willing States to deploy their guards to Texas,” I think of those elite southerners in 1861 for whom threatening war was all a rhetorical game.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is running out of ammunition.