Arkansas was never a bellwether state — it was predictably Democratic for nearly all of its first 175 years and predictably Republican for its last 10 after the Democrats elevated a Black man to the White House — so do we offer any foresight into the big presidential election coming up in a month?
Only a little, but it’s not reassuring for Donald Trump. Barring an October surprise like FBI Director Jim Comey’s false Oct. 28 bombshell on Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, Trump ought to lose both the national popular vote, by a much larger margin than 2.9 million this time, and even the Electoral College, which allots extra votes to sparsely populated rural states that tend to vote Republican.
Sure, Trump will carry Arkansas, although not by 60.5 percent, his ninth highest percentage in the country in 2016. Midsummer Arkansas polls showing his lead over Joe Biden within the margin of error probably undercount Trump’s strength in rural areas, but the significant diminution of his vote in a state that seemed to love him so much four years ago means a potential disaster for him in most of the 20 or so battleground states.
National polls and those in competitive states all year show Trump’s approval rating well below Biden’s on almost every question, especially on handling the pandemic, but they have shown more confidence in Trump in one area — managing the economy. Voters have short memories and they always give presidents credit or blame for economic conditions they had little to do with. Actually, the economy is one of Trump’s most transparent failures, and no one should know it better than Arkansans. He inherited the most resilient economy in the nation’s history and his term will reflect the worst economic record in modern times, the first net loss of jobs of any president since Herbert Hoover. Arkansas is no outlier to the disaster, although its economy, heavily based on farming and food-based industry, rarely suffers the depths that hit richer industrial states.
A few reminders. When Barack Obama took office in late January 2009, America was already 14 months into a recession and the late-autumn financial collapse was disposing of 800,000 or more jobs a month. Economists talked about another great depression and it was spreading to America’s trading partners around the globe. The national unemployment rate hit 10 percent four months into the Obama presidency before his modest stimulus, including a payroll tax cut, stanched the collapse. What followed from June 2009 was the longest sustained period of economic growth in history, eclipsing the 116 consecutive months during the Clinton presidency (though not Bill Clinton’s record 22 million jobs) and the two months on either side of it under Bush I and II. The economy reached that 10-year milestone — nearly eight years of Obama and two of Trump — two years into Trump’s term. Trump then proclaimed that he had produced the greatest economic miracle in world history, and people who may have voted for him reluctantly — anybody but a Clinton, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page advised Arkansas voters at the time — felt better about having voted for a brash, nasty-talking TV showman who had achieved celebrity by serial infidelities and immoral behavior as a business and social scion in the American Gotham. Every faintly optimistic economic report since then was followed by Trump boasts about his economic miracle.
Take the census report in September that said the poverty rate had fallen in 2019 to the lowest level since 1959. The Democrat-Gazette took the occasion to praise Trump’s great economic miracle. He had brought scads of jobs and even brought down the horrible poverty rate. His program of lower taxes on the well-to-do and deregulating business paid enormous dividends to all Americans, the newspaper said, concluding, “It behooves even the president’s critics to acknowledge that.”
Why so? The poverty rate has been sinking every year since 2010 and sharply since 2014, when the Affordable Care Act took full effect. Trump had nothing to do with it and certainly not the big Republican tax cut in 2018 mainly for the rich and corporations, which led to massive stock buybacks and a nice surge in the Dow.
New jobs? Take Arkansas. Our unemployment rate dropped from 8.5 percent to 3.7 percent during the Obama presidency. In the first two years of the Trump presidency it went from 3.7 percent to 3.5 percent — two tenths of one percent — and there it sat immovable until this March and April when it soared to 10.8 percent. That is a miracle? The national figures are no better than Arkansas’s.
The Democrat-Gazette’s editorial in 2016 calling for Arkies to vote for Trump over Hillary warned that, “having learned from the master [Bill],” President Hillary would again send budget deficits soaring. Actually, Clinton had ended deficits at the end of his first term and then, for the only time in history, paid down the U.S.’s publicly held debt four years in a row, reducing it by $363 billion.
Trump? The deficit soared his first year in office and has mushroomed since then. In the fiscal year that just ended, the deficit more than doubled the previous record of $1.5 trillion, in George W. Bush’s last budget year, although Trump had promised in 2016 that he would quickly end deficit spending and eliminate the entire national debt in his second term. If he gets a second term, he is far more likely to invoke the remedy that he once mentioned as a possibility and that he often used as a businessman — declare bankruptcy and refuse to pay the nation’s debt.
Remember Trump’s big promise to end the nation’s trade deficits with Canada, Mexico, China and the rest of the world? The rest of the world had been playing Uncle Sam for a sap, he said, and he was going to end it, by tariff wars and abolishing or rewriting trade agreements. It was a key to the slogan Make America Great Again.
How is that going? The trade deficit with the rest of the world was $735.3 billion in Obama’s last year. Under Trump, it soared to $792.4 billion in 2017, $872 billion in 2018 and $854.4 billion in 2019, although he had claimed victory in one trade skirmish after another, with Mexico, Canada, China, Europe. Three months ago, Trump recorded the biggest monthly international trade deficit since July 2008, Bush II’s last year. Where were the cheers?
While we’re on the subject of improving quality of life, you may have noticed the report in September that more than 2 million Americans lost their insurance and access to medical treatment in the last three years, which coincides with the duration of the Trump presidency. The number will go up dramatically by year’s end, although Trump continues to say, as he has for four years, that he has a plan to cover every American at no cost. He will reveal it after he wins reelection. He got mad and refused to talk after people asked for some hint about his plan at a town hall meeting in September.
Ask a lot of Arkansans and they will say they trust him to do what he promises, just like he did when he promised to make Mexico pay for a wall down the length of the southern border. He stole money from the military appropriation to build a fence along a few miles of the Rio Grande that Guatemalans can climb over or pry open with a mechanical jack. Mexicans, “losers” in the military — they’re all the same.
But quite a few proud white Arkansans — not a majority of them — are not going to vote for him again. Every poll shows the same to be true in all the competitive states, a few in the South. His hope is for a dampened turnout owing to voting barriers like the pandemic and a U.S. Postal Service now commanded by a Trump political aide who is dedicated to returning him to office, whatever it takes.
Trump still needs an October surprise, and he hopes that the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gives it to him. Whether he wins or loses on Nov. 3, he needs at least one more friend on the court, to protect him from the criminal and civil laws, whether it’s the tax records he has fought supplying to prosecutors or the public for four years, millions of taxpayer emoluments at the Trump luxury properties, multiple obstructions of justice, or having to supply a DNA sample for the Elle magazine columnist who says he raped her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman or having to give a deposition for a former contestant on his TV show “The Apprentice” who says he sexually harassed her. Trump’s judges have not been able to stop any of the legal recourses, but they have given him temporary protection by staving off evidence until after the election.
Ultimate salvation will rest upon the pardoning power of President Mike Pence, but one more friendly justice could help.