Can Democrats really beat the Trump economy in 2020?

What Democrats can learn from George W. Bush about beating an incumbent in a time of prosperity

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Sylverarts/iStock)

If not for Donald Trump being, well, Donald Trump, the 2020 race might well be a suicide run for Democrats. The record-long economic expansion is in its 121st month. The unemployment rate is at its lowest levels since the Apollo 11 moon landing. And not only do most Americans think the economy is doing pretty well, more and more are giving Trump credit for its strength. An election forecasting model run by Yale University economist Ray Fair is predicting a near-landslide for the GOP, assuming just "modest" economic growth between now and Election Day.

Of course, Trump is Trump. And while his approval numbers are rising, they're still lower than what bullish economic data would normally suggest. Even Fair is a bit squishy about his forecast, adding this caveat: "This analysis, of course, does not take into account the personalities of the candidates."

So the 2020 race is winnable for Democrats when it kind of shouldn't be. But they still need to contend with the robust American economy, one which continues to generate gobs of jobs, month after month. And while wage growth might not be spectacular, real wages are rising. Pretending none of this is happening makes Democrats look detached from reality. At the recent, two-night Democratic debate, Elizabeth Warren asked, "Who is this economy really working for? It's doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top."

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Except all the gains aren't just going to folks at the top. Right now wages are rising fastest for those in the bottom third. There's a big difference between saying things are good but could be better and trying to persuade satisfied people that they should be miserable. And if lots of people think the economy is pretty decent today, imagine how much that number might rise if the expansion runs through November of next year?

Yet history suggests even an extraordinarily strong economy offers no iron-clad, electoral guarantee for the incumbent party. Just ask Al Gore who as Bill Clinton's vice president was unable to parlay the 1990s economic boom into victory over George W. Bush in 2000. Now part of Gore's failure was Gore's fault. In an effort to distance himself from Clinton's sex scandal and impeachment, Gore ran away from his boss. He played the insurgent populist rather than the guy who could keep the economy humming for four more years.

But the Bush campaign was also clever in dealing with the economy, using a strategy Democrats would be smart to emulate. First, rather than downplay the economy's obvious strength as some sort of mirage, Bush gave Clinton-Gore little credit for its success. As Bush said during his first debate with Gore, "I think the economy has meant more for the Gore and Clinton folks than the Gore and Clinton folks have meant for the economy. I think most of the economic growth that has taken place is a result of ingenuity and hard work and entrepreneurship" of the American people.

Second, while conceding America was prosperous, Bush also focused on some big problems that risked undercutting that prosperity — namely the need to reform education, as well as the Medicare and Social Security entitlements. Bush also effectively argued that it was Gore and his "big government" spending plans that threatened the Clinton expansion rather than his own tax cuts.

Third, Bush focused on how despite the booming economy, not everyone was participating. As he said in his 1999 presidential announcement speech, "We will defend the American dream with sound economic policies and tax cuts. But we will also tell every American, 'The dream is for you.' Tell forgotten children in failed schools, 'The dream is for you.' Tell families, from the barrios of L.A. to the Rio Grande Valley: 'El sueno americano es para ti.' Tell men and women in our decaying cities, 'The dream is for you.'"

To some extent, Democrats are employing the Bush playbook when they give a "Thanks, Obama" nod to the expansion, focus on the need for further health-care reform, and talk about inequality. But they need to be careful that their skepticism remains reality based given the economy's continuing strength, as seen in last week's surprisingly strong June jobs report. And while economic growth may fade over the next year and a half, for now indicators are suggesting a slowdown rather than a recession. The good news for Democrats is that they don't need a downturn to win. And while Gore could try and run away from Clinton, Trump can't run away from Trump.

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James Pethokoukis

James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he runs the AEIdeas blog. He has also written for The New York Times, National Review, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and other places.