Tom with the BTRTN April 2023 Month in Review.
A month ago, in our March month in review, we noted that Donald Trump, with his indictment and subsequent surge in both fundraising and polling, had returned to center stage. The spotlight itself was not necessarily kind – trained on a grim-faced and silent Trump in a decidedly non-glitzy setting, a dingy old Manhattan criminal court house. But the effect on his short-term political fortunes was electric, with millions of dollars pouring in and his lead over challenger Ron DeSantis for the GOP 2024 nomination ballooning to an almost comical 30 points.This month, it was the Republican Party’s turn to seize the spotlight and show America their hand. It wasn’t pretty. Time and again, Republican leaders -- from Kevin McCarthy in the Capitol in Washington, DC on down to Main Street legislators operating in smaller heartland chambers -- made clear the GOP vision, policies and tactics on which they will all run in 2024. The GOP pols expelled, silenced, banned, cut back, shot up and shut down with gleeful adandon, apparently missing the fact that the arch-right orgy came off as a horror show to the viewing voters who decide elections. That is, swing state suburban voters, the persuadable kind, the kind that elected John Fetterman and Ralph Warnock in elections the GOP could have won. The month was littered with such events, much like a parking lot at a football game after the tailgating is over, the trash harshly illuminating GOP positions and priorities on guns, abortion, trans rights, free speech and, in McCarthy’s coup de grace, the House’s debt ceiling bill.
· Tennessee. Fresh off yet another mass killing featuring a semi-automatic rifle, the GOP-dominated local state legislature expelled two members, both young Black men, for protesting gun violence on the floor of the chamber, while another legislator, a white woman, avoided expulsion for the same “offense.” Thus the GOP managed to end up, in one fell swoop, on the wrong side on gun violence, free speech and racism. The GOP looked bad enough on the substance, but the optics were even worse. And all for naught, given that within days the disenfranchised districts voted to replace the evicted legislators with....the evicted legislators.
· Montana. The Montana state legislature liked this general idea so much that they too got into the “silencing” act, albeit with a different method. Rather than expulsion, they literally banned a transgender member from speaking on the floor after she said proponents of an anti-gender-affirming-care bill would have “blood on their hands” if they passed the legislation. Unlike in Tennessee, when at least the protesters clearly violated legislature protocols with their protests (but were more deserving of a slap on the wrists than an expulsion), all the offending legislator did was speak eloquently, but at that moment, the crazies were not into defending her right of free speech. The Montana Governor later signed the bill.
· Bud Light. Bud Light had the vision (or at least the guts) to run a commercial that featured a transgender social influencer, which sent the crazies into a frenzy. They were led by the hard right rock singer Kid Rock, who decided that shooting up – with a fully automatic rifle, no less -- cases of Bud Light was a responsible way to vent his anger. Others followed, naturally.
· Texas. A Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas had the chutzpah to overturn the 23-year old FDA approval of mifepristone, a safe and proven medication abortion drug, apparently on the basis of his confidence in his own (layman’s) medical acumen. This was a bridge too far for even the U.S. Supreme Court (which is saying something), who ordered the hold lifted and the drug to remain in use while the case makes its way through the courts. But their verdict was not before the Texas judge utterly inflamed a whole swath of reproductive health care supporters including, of course, many swing state suburban voters.
· Florida. Ron DeSantis is on some kind of rampage, beginning the month by signing a bill that bans abortions after a mere six weeks, and ending it in court on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by Disney that charged the governor with a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.” This was after DeSantis went to war with Disney over the company’s public opposition to Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law by attempting to install a new board of governors to control the Florida operations of the entertainment giant. DeSantis quickly found that it is easier to wrestle alligators in the Everglades than corporate lawyers unleashed against him, who first stripped the new board of its powers and then slapped the lawsuit on DeSantis. DeSantis seems to be arguing that the government has the right to punish those who critique it, which is a hallmark of totalitarianism, and the opposite of democracy.
· Washington, DC. All of that was a prelude to the McCarthy bill, which, while not a full Budget, nevertheless is a clear blueprint of the GOP vision. The guts of the bill are huge budget cuts targeting many, many popular and effective programs, fully $3.6 trillion of cuts in "discretionary programs" over a 10-year period. The bill does not specify where the cuts will come from -- a Budget would do that, but the GOP does not have the guts to lay out its plans. But "discretionary spending," according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, includes “defense, veterans’ health care, child care and preschool, medical research and public health, food and drug safety inspectors, Pell Grants and college work-study, K-12 education, environmental protection, housing, and some transportation programs, among many others.” The Democrats will have a field day creating ads demonstrating the impact of draconian cuts in these areas to everyday Americans.
Cutting popular programs and clumsily airing grievances against abortion, LGBTQ rights and gun control measures are not the ticket to electoral success in America today. It is widely known that Democratic positions on each are more popular nationwide than those of the Republicans, and that is precisely because the persuadable middle hangs with the Democrats on them. This barrage of unpopular policies wrapped up in nearly unwatchable packaging is tantamount to political suicide on the national level.
So why is this happening? The motivations of the various GOP politicians are largely (though not entirely) explainable. The local GOP legislators are much like GOP representatives in deep red districts. It is virtually impossible for them to commit an act that their constituents would deem “too extreme” on the conservative spectrum. Their only threat is to be primaried from someone who is even further to the right than they are.
As for McCarthy, he, of course, promised such deep spending cuts as one of the central prices he paid the GOP House crazies for his speakership. He may have won kudos by pulling off passage of the debt ceiling bill with the votes of a just-unified-enough GOP. But the stakes will get much tougher now when he fights the battle to either enact some material portion of his legislation (impossible, given the Democratic-controlled Senate) or follow through on the threat to not raise the debt ceiling if he fails (unthinkable, given the impact on the global economy). Scylla and Charybdis look like a lamb and a hot tub compared to what McCarthy now faces.
The harder motivation to figure is DeSantis, the presumptive presidential candidate and designated savior of the party from the clutches of Trump. DeSantis is apparently trying to take his Florida act national, proving that a starkly conservative agenda can indeed win on a national level. The ABC’s for him mean banning abortions, books and corporate tax breaks. His theory is that he can be Trump without the baggage. But what he is learning on a highly visible stage is that he is really Trump without the charisma -- he has the personality of a maggot and cannot comfortably manage any aspect of retail politics -- and, more importantly, that he oddly seems to lack Trump's political acumen on this issues. Trump is pummeling DeSantis on the governor’s backing of cuts in Social Security and Medicare, and on the Disney fiasco, and Trump also knows better than to make abortion, of all things, a centerpiece of his campaign. DeSantis seems to be tone deaf to the impact his campaign will have on those he will need most in November, 2024 (in the unlikley event he gets that far).
There is one group that has been very quiet – GOP Senators. They know that, with these antics, the party is on the verge of throwing away a terrific Senate electoral map for the GOP in 2024, which offers a real chance of taking back the Senate. But they appear even more helpless to stop them than they proved to be in stopping Trump.
As for Biden, he is so pleased with the spate of GOP self-immolating viral moments that he briefly considered pushing off his own re-election announcement to the fall, so as not to interrupt the seemingly endless supply of ad fodder with his own bit of news. Finally, he snuck in his announcement – last Tuesday – and then, on cue, promptly handed the news cycle back to the GOP crazies, in this case, the Montana Madness (and then the Disney lawsuit).
Biden knows that while the GOP keeps turning over terrible cards for all to see, he has some aces up his sleeve. Certainly abortion and the Big Lie threat to democracy are two of his biggest weapons, and he can rely on Democrats to come out in droves to fight for reproductive health rights and keep Trump at bay. The majority of the country is with him on gun violence and climate change. And he appears to be on track to the “soft landing” for the economy that the Fed has been targeting since it began its raising-interest-rates battle against inflation. He needs this economic story to turn out well, leading to reasonably robust growth in 2024 at ever–reducing levels of inflation. If he can achieve that, and maintain his current level of health and vigor, he will win in 2024.
But first he has to navigate the debt ceiling stand-off. He holds the high ground but now has to determine whether McCarthy's bill has given the Speaker just enough leverage to try to work out some kind of deal. Biden is a dealmaker at heart, and he certainly has experience with this topic (debt ceiling standoffs were de rigueur in the Obama years). He may find some way to get something done that does not appear to be directly related to the debt ceiling. Since Janet Yellin has just announced that the U.S. could run out of cash by June 1, presumably we'll find out this month.
Biden’s approval rating in April remained at 43%. His issue management ratings also remained nearly identical to the prior month as well. The “Bidenometer,” our BTRTN aggregate measure of economic performance, dropped to +30, a drop of 10 points driven by new GDP numbers that show a slowing economy, as business investment slowed in response to the Fed’s aggressive interest rate increases. Consumer spending remained strong. The Bidenometer score of 30 means that the economy on average is 30% stronger than it was when Trump left office (see below for a fuller explanation).
The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.
The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points: the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP. The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.
The +30 for April, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 30% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below). With a Bidenometer of +30, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office. Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger. On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery. Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it. Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +30 under Biden.
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