“Well, we have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”
Trump thought it was more exciting to talk about the 15,000 troops he’d ordered to the Mexican border to halt an “invasion” by immigrants.
More exciting to talk about how they might shoot the caravan heading for that border in the event that one throws a rock: “We will consider that a firearm. Because there’s not much difference.”
More exciting to threaten an end to the centuries-old constitutional right to birthright citizenship, which he mocked as “ridiculous”.
And when his party officials proposed that they finish the campaign with ads celebrating the economic “Morning in America”, Trump instead endorsed an untruthful ad demonising immigrants as cop-killers, an ad so incendiary that US TV networks refused to air it.
“They argue it’s ‘morning in America,’ but in their ads, it’s not morning in America,” a San Francisco University political scientist, Ken Goldstein, told USA Today long before the final phase of the campaign. He’d picked up a strong theme of attack ads and negativity in Republican ads earlier and wider than the final abortive effort. In American politics, the phrase about morning recalls the campaign of Republican hero Ronald Reagan, optimist.
But Trump, demagogue, wasn’t content with economic good news. He conjured fear and hate as well.
On the other side of the world, literally as well as figuratively, was Malcolm Turnbull. He had to accept that presiding over an economic boom was insufficient for him to hold the prime ministership.
The former prime minister set out the basics during his appearance on the ABC’s Q&A show on Thursday: “The economy was strong. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. When I became prime minister, I said I would deliver economic leadership.
“In the 2016 election, I campaigned on delivering jobs and growth. And we delivered both. Record jobs growth. The strongest jobs growth, in fact, in our nation’s history. Strong economic growth – the envy of the developed world.”
Australians generally scoff at the notion that their country could be successful, but Turnbull was not making it up. The British magazine The Economist last month published a cover story on Australia under the headline: “Aussie Rules: What the World Can Learn from Australia.”
It said that Australia’s economy “is arguably the most successful in the rich world. It has been growing for 27 years without a recession – a record for a developed country. Its cumulative growth over that period is almost three times what Germany has managed. The median income has risen four times faster than in America. Public debt, at 41 per cent of GDP, is less than half Britain’s.”
Yet here was Turnbull, forced out of the leadership by his own party in the midst of this success. How could they? He professed to be baffled. He shouldn’t have been.
Economic good times have been insufficient qualification for prime ministers to hold their jobs and for governments to hold power in Australia for a decade now.
Beginning in 2007, every prime ministerial coup, every electoral loss in Australia has taken place against the same backdrop of economic success. Until Australia casually discarded the Howard government, the voters had rewarded every postwar government that presided over good economic conditions.
But the longer the boom runs, the less credit governments seem to get. You need to be 45 years old to have any adult memory of a recession in Australia. The median age of an Australian is 36. Economic growth just seems to be automatic, even inevitable.
Economic growth was a golden thread that bound the people to their governments. For the last decade it has remained a credential but a threadbare one. It is necessary but insufficient for political success, even in the most economically successful country on earth. It’s the political paradox of Australia’s prosperity – the more it gets, the less appreciative it feels.
So what happened in America? Trump, it seemed, was responding to the needs of his hardcore supporters, his so-called “base”. A Democrat pollster, Celinda Lake, explained that voters in the president’s blue-collar base “are less likely to think the economy is doing better. The economy doesn’t do anything to energise their base,” she said. Trump promised to bring back the factories and the jobs in rustbelt America. He hasn’t.
So he hit the xenophobia button hard and his “base” responded. He kept their loyalty in the midterms. But this came at a price.
“The problem is Republicans have a good story to tell in the economy, but the Republican with the largest microphone only wants to go on these rants about immigration,” a veteran Republican adviser, Mike Murphy, told The New York Times. In the process, he was “managing to offend every swing voter in the country”.
And these were the voters, notably suburban women, who had supported Trump two years ago but turned against his party this week. As a result, the Democratic Party today controls the House. So the appeal to hate and fear kept the Republican base but lost the centre.
If Trump had accepted Paul Ryan’s advice, would the Republicans have done better? We’ll never know.
And in Australia? Scott Morrison now confronts the same puzzle that Turnbull confronted. The economy is humming along but the government is behind in the polls. Even further behind than it was under Turnbull.
What should he do? Do as Trump did and hit the xenophobia button? Some among his party’s right-wing realm will urge him to.
But Australia is a very different place. Voting in America is optional.
A US political campaign has two tasks – first it has to win over a voter to political candidate, and then it has to motivate her to actually take the trouble to go to a polling booth on election day. Always a Tuesday, incidentally, to make it even more inconvenient.
That means campaigns need to reach deep into the viscera of the voter. To grab their deep fears or passions, their most powerful hopes and their hatreds.
An Australian campaign has but one task. To win over a voter. Because she’s going to vote in any case. It’s compulsory to turn out to vote. There’s no need for extremes.
Indeed, as the American midterm experience shows, extremes aren’t necessarily guaranteed to succeed even in that country because they can offend as easily as they can inflame. In Australia, an extreme American-style campaign is not only unnecessary. It would most likely backfire badly.
So what can an Australian conservative prime minister do? Is there a way to harness economic success to pull a political wagon? The longtime Liberal polling guru Mark Textor says that for economic prosperity “to have meaning, you have to contemplate its loss. They say in the movie industry you need to have tension. If it’s all love, there’s no tension. If there’s no tension, there’s no drama, if there’s no drama, there’s no memorability.”
The standard shtick is for the Liberals to pretend that a Labor government will ruin the economy. Turnbull ran this one on Q&A: “My concern was to keep Labor out of government and to keep a strong Liberal government in power that was able to deliver on the economic growth, the jobs, the opportunities that I’d promised.”
Yawn. No one believes this tired routine, former prime minister. Labor held power for six years under Rudd and Gillard. The economy continued to thrive. So it has to be something else.
Textor’s advice: “You have to focus on an issue that has meaning. If you want to wedge both Labor and One Nation, you have to have a retail economic issue. The best way to do that is on tax because the Coalition has a good record on tax and tax reform.”
He means personal income tax cuts. He doesn’t mean the $10 a week that Morrison offered in his last budget. He means something bigger, aimed at the middle income bracket inhabited by swinging voters. “Taxation cannot be an ideological issue – it has to be an issue of personal relevance and direct impact.”
And if Labor immediately neutralises it, by matching it, as their would surely do? “Then you have a real tax argument,” Textor tells me. “It’s what Liberals should be about.”
Of course, to offer a reasonably big tax cut would be costly to the budget, and that would immediately jeopardise Morrison’s promise to return the budget to surplus. How to square that circle?
Morrison could consider a broader plan of tax reform that would allow him to improve the whole system – abolish some tax concessions for special interests so he could offer tax cuts for the people, for instance. That was something Turnbull was too frightened to try. That could be exciting.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
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