Looking at the issues that divide us and the “alternative facts” that propel them

January 18th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

As the Presidential Primary season moves forward, it appears two main issues are top of mind for voters, especially Republican voters: illegal immigration at the southern border and the economy.

There are other issues Republicans rant about, such as crime (it’s been dropping for the last 20 years), Joe Biden’s age (he’s three and a half years older than Trump — they’re both old), government being too large (I’ll give you that one), white people being disadvantaged economically and educationally (they’re not; and from 2011 to 2021, the percentage of adults age 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 34.0% to 41.9% for white America), anti-wokism (we can debate that one), and, of course, the absence of racism in America (if you believe that, I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you after the tide goes out).

But the two the big issues, immigration and the economy, are gaining traction nationally, meaning Republicans have discovered what they consider winning issues, especially immigration.

The immigration issue

No one can deny our southern border is decidedly porous with thousands of families trying to get across it. Never mind that these families are fleeing untenable situations of violence, persecution and natural disasters in the northern Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, and El Salvador. These countries are among the most unstable and dangerous on Earth, with high rates of crime, gang activity, political repression, and sexual violence. Yet the immigrants moving north walk a perilous journey, men, women and children, over many hundreds, even thousands of miles (Ecuador is more than two thousand miles from the U.S. Mexican border) — many in flip flops the entire way.

So, yes they come. Republicans say it’s all Joe Biden’s fault. He has “opened the border” to them. Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved a resolution condemning the administration’s border and immigration policies. The legislation denounces President Biden’s “open-border policies.”

Are they? Let’s dig a little bit.

At this moment, unless many Americans come their senses, Donald Trump is on track to be the Republican Party’s nominee for President in November. He will face incumbent Joe Biden. Given all the hyperbole, it seems fair to compare Trump’s record on securing our border with Barack Obama’s, his predecessor, and Joe Biden’s, his successor. In this comparison, let our yardstick be the one Republicans cite — the “open borders policy.”

Let us not forget Donald Trump’s signature issue after coming down the golden escalator in 2015 — repelling illegal immigrants. You remember? He would build a wall and Mexico would pay for it (neither ever happened). And then we elected him President.

According to the right-leaning Cato Institute, Trump did a terrible job removing/deporting illegal immigrants to the U.S. He compares woefully to Barack Obama’s eight-year record before him, as seen below. If stopping illegal immigration is your yardstick, Obama’s first four years compared with Trump’s four years are a hands down win. And Obama kept it up in his second term.

Moving on, how does Trump’s immigration record stack up to Joe Biden’s? Not well. Once again, according to another Cato Institute paper, Trump released a greater percentage of immigrants crossing the border into the U.S. interior, and removed/deported a smaller percentage than has the Biden Administration, as seen in this Cato chart.

Yet, the main issue Republicans have latched onto for the coming battle for the White House is Joe Biden’s awful performance on immigration. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” once again are on full display.

However, the facts here don’t matter. The Biden Administration wants to do better on immigration and has asked for funding increases to make that happen, funding increases the Republican-led House refuses to approve, thereby allowing everyone to wallow in the status quo. Yesterday, Senate negotiators announced they were close to a bi-partisan proposal for border security, but Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, says it is working against any Senate proposal. Last night, Speaker Johnson criticized the plan prior to seeing it.

Immigration will be a fight right up until election day, about nine months from now.

What about the economy?

The economy may offer a stronger case for Republicans, because it appears highly perplexing. On the larger metrics, our economy is rebounding well. Inflation is now approaching the Fed’s optimum rate of 2%, and the Fed has indicated it may begin dropping interest rates at its March meeting. Wages, real wages, are up, and unemployment is down to 3.7%, which is just about full employment. Federal Reserve Governor Christopher Waller calls the current situation, “Almost as good as it gets.” The Fed’s latest estimate of GDP growth, released today, after factoring in inflation, is 2.4%, which is quite good.

Still, prices are up in many areas and are causing hurt to average Americans. Gas prices are down, but going into a grocery store presents people with instant sticker shock.

In my area of the Berkshire mountains, the nearest city is Pittsfield, Massachusetts, population 43,310. The newly-elected mayor and city council are facing a difficult situation.  The city budget, at $205 million, is up 9 percent from fiscal year 2023, following a 5% rise in that year. Water fees are up 12% and sewer bills by 25%. The average residential property tax rate has risen 25% over the last three years. People are feeling economic pain.

However, notwithstanding the pain, more voters now say they see signs of improvement in January compared to October, according to a January Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll of 1,000 registered voters, released on 9 January.

These voters are not wrong. Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist for the New York Times, says we need to be patient. Wages are growing faster than inflation and have been doing so since mid-2022. He points to this Federal Reserve chart to prove his point.

If the country continues on its current track, it will become more and more apparent that the economy really has turned around, because people will feel it. It won’t matter to Trump’s MAGA cult, but it will absolutely matter to average Americans like those living in Pittsfield. As James Carville so eloquently put it back in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That got Bill Clinton elected.

Who will the economy elect on the 5th of November?