Over four hours of debate among what felt like a thousand Democratic candidates, a few notable topics scarcely came up. There was no heated tussle over jobs plans. No argument over how to set the national debt on a better path, and no proposals to balance the budget or change the country’s entitlement structure. There was less discussion of getting work to America’s forgotten communities than in the last election cycle.
The debate on The Economy has become a debate on the economy: not so much about taxes and jobs and growth and debt, but about corporate power, student loans, the wage structure, industrial policy, the cost of living, the relative tax burden, and so on.
Consider when Senator Kamala Harris of California took on President Donald Trump’s handling of the country’s growth. “This president walks around talking about and flouting his great economy, right? My great economy,” she said. “You ask him, ‘How are you measuring the greatness of this economy of yours?’ and they point to the jobless numbers and the unemployment numbers. Well, yeah, people in America are working. They’re working two and three jobs.”
Harris’s desire to drill down, to go to the yes-buts and the sure-but-stills, was not surprising: The economy is as good as it has been since the late 1990s, and is arguably better than it was back then. The unemployment rate has not been this low since the late 1960s. Wage inequality continues to be a defining quality of the American economy, but even so, median wages are rising, and the bottom half of the income distribution is doing better.
What candidate could criticize the White House for overseeing those kinds of numbers? Indeed, who is thinking much about the unemployment rate at all anymore? The share of Americans citing economic issues as the most important problem facing the country has fallen from 86 percent in 2009 to 40 percent by 2016 to just 12 or 14 percent today, according to data from Gallup. That is the lowest level in at least two decades.
That has left space for other concerns, with the national attention fracturing and diversifying as the unemployment rate has drifted down. According to Gallup, Americans are now 10 times more likely to cite immigration as the most important problem than they are to cite the gap between the rich and the poor. They are six times as likely to cite race and racism as they are to cite wage issues. They are six times more likely to say that bad leadership is the central problem, versus jobs and unemployment.
The good economy has also allowed for a tremendous amount of progressive policy making and idea generation on the left: There’s oxygen in the room for big, wild proposals on prisoner reentry and student loans and child poverty and universal basic incomes, not just on health care and taxes.
The national debt has quite simply vanished as a topic—vanished! On the first night of the debates, it came up only in passing, when Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota mentioned an immigration bill that would draw it down. On the second night, it came up only in passing again, whereas the student-loan crisis came up a dozen times.
But as soon as Democrats come back into power, expect a lot of dialogue about how today’s citizens are bankrupting their grandchildren. And, of course, expect a lot of campaigning on how to fix the economy if it softens even a little bit, let alone if it softens a lot. Trump remains remarkably unpopular given how good the unemployment rate is and how strong growth continues to be.
Right now, it looks unlikely that this state of affairs will change much before the next election. If it does, nobody will talk about anything else.