On Thursday morning, the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that the U.S. GDP had the biggest drop in a single quarter in U.S. history. From April through June, the economy contracted by 9.5 percent, with GDP falling at an annualized rate of 32.9 percent.
President Trump, who tweets about many topics, said nothing about it. But some 16 minutes after the news broke, he did tweet the following:
While I think this tweet was a profound error for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, my strong suspicion is that it accomplished precisely what Trump wanted. By floating the idea that we should postpone the election, suddenly no one was talking about the disastrous economic data. Instead, just about everyone took the bait and started talking about this grotesquely irresponsible trial balloon for a terrible idea. Including yours truly.
The president places outsized importance on numbers—stock market numbers, COVID-19 numbers, whatever—and racking up the single worst quarterly economic number ever recorded probably bothered him more than it should. After all, 32.9 percent was actually better than expected. Moreover, Trump wasn’t responsible for the pandemic that caused the economy to grind to a halt in the spring. And even though his handling of the crisis has been spotty at best, a similar number would probably be inevitable under any president.
Trump’s tweet was a terrible error politically for more reasons that I can list here. But here are four:
First, it makes Trump look desperate. If he were up 10 points in the polls, he wouldn’t be asking for an extension.
Second, Joe Biden is beating Trump badly by promising a return to normalcy. Floating the idea that the election should be postponed—something Biden predicted Trump might try, to the outrage of Trump defenders—only fuels a sense of chaos and presidential unsteadiness.
Third, it forced other Republicans to distance themselves from the president. “Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time. We’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview with a Kentucky TV station.
And finally, it’s a futile idea that will go nowhere, even as it galvanizes Trump’s opponents and divides his supporters, because the president of the United States cannot unilaterally delay an election. All elections are run by the states, and the timetable for all federal elections are set by Congress.
It’s this last point that we should all be grateful for, and progressives in particular should take note.
Progressives, historically, have wanted the federal government to have more and more power. Many heap scorn on states’ rights and the Electoral College as antediluvian.
More recently, the left has been all over the place on presidential powers. They’ve wanted Trump to nationalize the health care system to fight the pandemic but are outraged by the president’s “trampling” of state sovereignty in response to riots in Oregon and elsewhere. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio begged Trump to send in the army to fight the pandemic but is scandalized by the idea of Trump sending federal agents to quash violent protests.
Well, presumably, all of them are happy that the president can’t unilaterally move elections to suit his political needs. Hopefully progressives will remember their gratitude in the years to come.
One of the beauties of our constitutional structure is that it makes it difficult for any actor to abuse power across the whole country. Even if one succeeds, there are safeguards to see that the abuse is temporary. Governors can screw up their own states but are powerless beyond their borders. Presidents can get away with all sorts of bad ideas but are constrained from making them worse by the various checks on their authority. And even when those checks fail, as has happened, there’s always the final check: elections, which allow voters to say, “Enough.”
Nationalizing elections, policing, education or even, in some respects, pandemic-fighting doesn’t guarantee dictatorship or the universalizing of mistaken policies. But it makes it much easier. If Trump’s terrible (albeit successful) attempt to distract from a bad economy served as a teachable moment for the left and everyone else, it will have been worth it.
Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.