In retrospect, there’s a really obvious reason Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election. Everyone was so focused on the drama surrounding two larger-than-life candidates that no one paid enough attention to what was once considered maybe the most fundamental indicator of success in presidential elections. As Clinton’s own adviser James Carville memorably put it: It’s the economy, stupid.
Obama was the first postwar president to never have a single year of gross domestic product growth topping 3 percent. While Obama did inherit a bad recession, after eight years and thousands of questionable economic policies and regulations — including blowing through a trillion dollars of taxpayer money dedicated to “economic stimulus” — the former president has no one but himself to blame that the expected economic rebound after the 2008 housing market crash was alarmingly anemic.
Hillary Clinton was the representative of the incumbent party in the White House, and not only did she not promise a radically different economic vision, she largely vowed to continue Obama’s legacy. Analysts were also so busy deriding Trump’s message as demagogic and simplistic, they rarely noticed he was relentlessly on-message about the economy.
This was not only good messaging, it was strategic. If you’re looking at an electoral map, economically vulnerable voters in the Midwest and Rust Belt who hadn’t particularly benefited from the transition away from manufacturing to a global information economy were those most likely to expand the map for Republicans. Sure enough, those same voters delivered a decisive Electoral College victory to Trump after some news organizations laughably forecast Clinton “has a 99 percent chance of winning.”
Trump’s Economy versus Obama’s
Yet there’s been precious little reflection on the economic failure of the Obama administration, especially in light of the economic boom that has occurred since Trump took office. Fortunately, all this is not lost on Andrew Puzder, the CEO of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food chains, who has written a new book, The Capitalist Comeback: The Trump Boom and the Left’s Plot to Stop It. Puzder, you may recall, was also Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor before he withdrew his name for consideration, but more on that later.
America’s center-left media and business establishment are loathe to alternately credit Trump and blame Obama for the economy, but as Puzder notes it was obvious almost immediately that the business sworld was responding positively to Trump having his hand on the nation’s financial tiller:
Literally from the day he was elected, business confidence soared like a coiled spring let loose from its restraints. The National Federation of Independent Businesses’ Small Business Optimism Index ‘blasted off the day after the 2016 election and remained in the stratosphere for all of 2017.’ By the year’s end, the NFIB Index reached the highest monthly average in its history, exceeding the record year of 2004. According to NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg, ‘[w]e’ve been doing this research for nearly half a century, longer than anyone else, and I’ve never seen anything like 2017. The 2016 election was like a dam breaking. Small business owners were waiting for better policies from Washington, suddenly they got them, and the engine of the economy roared back to life.’
On election night, New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said the stock market would never recover. Puzder, who had been a staunch supporter of Trump during the election, notes in his book that the night of the election he told the BBC he’d be buying into the market after Trump’s victory. The Dow rose more in Trump’s first year in office than any other in its 121-year history.
If anything, signs point to continued success. While the Trump administration didn’t get the 3 percent GDP growth they were hoping for last year, it was still a more than 50 percent increase over the anemic 1.5 percent of Obama’s final year. The GOP tax cut Trump signed into law last December appears to be having very beneficial effects on employment and business investment.
Puzder doesn’t stop at ticking off a few indicators. He makes a pretty comprehensive economic case attributing the success thus far of Trump’s economy to specific policies and political sentiments that represent significant improvements over what the Obama administration did. If Puzder’s book did nothing else, it would be a worthwhile contribution, considering how little popular analysis has been done here.
It’s the Regulation, Stupid
In reading The Capitalist Comeback, it’s worth asking why Puzder was generally right about Trump when so many of America’s increasingly politicized boardrooms made the wrong political and economic calculation in 2016. Increasingly, American business is defined and influenced by the outspoken visionaries of Silicon Valley or Wall Street titans.
While these industries are impressive generators of wealth, the tech and financial industries are increasingly downstream from the immediate and practical effects of government meddling in the economy (or, worse, they have entire lobbying shops dedicated to actually creating new rent-seeking regulations designed to hamstring the competition). When you’re a CEO in a more salt-of-the-earth industry such as fast food, you don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye to regulation.
It’s easy for Democratic politicians to propose feelgood laws such as a $15 minimum wage or the requirement that anyone working more than 35 hours a week must be given health insurance. But if you help employ tens of thousands of entry-level workers, as Puzder does, you’re acutely sensitive to payroll costs and understand all too well how regulatory compliance often hurts workers in lost jobs.
As Puzder makes clear, “I believe it is important for political leaders to hear from those of us who personally know the importance of good jobs to working families, and who also know how government regulations can discourage companies from creating jobs by making it against their economic interests. I’d always been happy to support qualified candidates for office who understood that.” This isn’t just a matter of protecting Puzder’s own interests. It is well documented in Puzder’s book and elsewhere that needless regulations cost American enterprise billions, and these regulations are particularly costly for small businesses, which have historically been the engines driving America’s economic growth.
Again, this is another reason Puzder makes the case that supporting Trump was the smart move for American business. He cites a Competitive Enterprise Institute study that concluded Trump is deregulating the economy at a faster rate than any other president did.
“At a December 14, 2017 press briefing, Trump’s chief regulatory officer, Neomi Rao, announced that for the 2017 fiscal year (which ended in September), the Trump administration eliminated not just two but twenty-two regulations for each new regulation that was issued,” Puzder notes.
The Political Problem
Puzder evinces a surprisingly holistic grasp of regulatory problems, which are ultimately a political, rather than economic, problem. In observing why and how much the federal government is now meddling in the affairs of private business, Puzder takes the book in a somewhat surprising direction. He spends some time going through the political history of the last 100 years or so, and demonstrates how American conceptions of limited government and constitutionalism have been undermined.
For professional political observers (ahem), some of this feels like well-trodden ground. At other times Puzder exhibits a surprisingly comprehensive insight into these matters, such as his discussion of the negative impact of early-twentieth-century progressives. Puzder has clearly educated himself, and besides, his target audience is likely not politicos.
In this respect, Puzder has done another valuable service with The Capitalist Comeback. “Though I have been a conservative since the 1980s (I voted for George McGovern on my first trip to the ballot box), I am not, by nature, a ‘political’ person,” Puzder writes early on in the book. “I preferred the business of business.”
The people most likely to benefit from Puzder’s book are likely right-leaning businessmen and women, as well as local Republican politicians and community leaders who, like Puzder, probably once thought they could trust government authorities not to run the economy aground. By now it should be abundantly obvious that they increasingly need to know how to make arguments for limited government and its salutary contributions to the economy.
Puzder makes these arguments in an exemplary fashion, and serves as a personal example. If he has the courage to start openly talking about his beliefs in limited government, maybe more of America’s politically conservative businessmen will come out of the closet and defend the need for economic freedom. He persuasively argues that the time for courage on these matters is now.
A Political Vendetta
Speaking of courage, another aspect of this book unrelated to economic matters might interest many people. Puzder was for a time Trump’s nominee to be labor secretary, and he withdrew his name for the job under a cloud of scandal. The media coverage of various Trump officials has been overzealous and unfair, to put it mildly, and Puzder makes a good case that what happened to him was no different.
Two basic matters sank his nomination. The first was that Puzder had once employed a housekeeper who was an illegal immigrant. “I thought that incident should have weighed in my favor, because once I realized her immigration status, I discharged her and then offered to help her document her status with the authorities,” Puzder writes. “In other words, over five years before I had any thought of serving in public life, when it would have been easy for me to ignore the unlawful status of a worker in my home, I acted when that status came to light.”
Whether Puzder acted honorably or not proved irrelevant. The media were obviously more interested in finding a way to present this as hypocrisy, considering the hardline stances the Trump administration has taken on immigration.
The second issue was more serious. Puzder’s ex-wife Lisa accused him of abusing her in divorce proceedings decades ago. His ex-wife, who he speaks glowingly of here, has since completely recanted the accusations and says she was pressured into making them by her divorce lawyer. During his nomination for labor secretary, she even wrote a letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions overseeing his nomination, making all of this clear and defending her ex-husband’s honor. In fact, she specifically told the Senate committee her lawyer “was more interested in hurting Andy because of a political vendetta than in representing [her] best interests.”
The source of that vendetta is also revealing about Puzder’s character. “The ‘political vendetta’ Lisa referred to grew from my involvement in the pro-life movement in St. Louis in the 1980s. As part of that work, I had co-authored a law review article proposing pro-life legislation, which Missouri adopted in 1986 as part of a larger bill,” he writes. “A St. Louis–area abortion clinic challenged the law, and it was in the courts at the time of our divorce. While Lisa supported my position on this issue, she had hired an attorney whose wife worked at the clinic challenging the law. Lisa admitted essentially the same thing to me in a 1991 letter after I had moved to California.”
Again, exculpatory information didn’t matter. “Perhaps the clearest example of media bias on the false and long-recanted abuse allegations came after it was announced that I had withdrawn my nomination for secretary of labor. A Politico reporter unabashedly tweeted that Politico’s newsroom (which had regularly repeated the abuse allegations) broke out in applause,” he writes. “The whole incident wounded Lisa deeply.”
It’s understandable that readers would approach this book expecting to read about the political drama surrounding Puzder’s nomination, and it’s difficult to begrudge Puzder the chance to tell his side of the story. He also recounts other details about his nomination that provide some insight into the tortuous aspects of entering into the political fray at the highest levels. For instance, he amusingly recounts a series of meetings with Democratic senators trying to sell them on his nomination.
In a nutshell, Bernie Sanders was convivial and surprisingly receptive to Puzder’s attempts to find common ground on trade and other issues. Al Franken started out their meeting needlessly cantankerous and eventually warmed up to Puzder. Elizabeth Warren was incredibly condescending and immune to acknowledging basic economic realities during their entire interview. If you’re at all familiar with personalities on Capitol Hill, this all sounds exactly right.
But if readers pick up Puzder’s book expecting to learn about the drama of the Trump administration’s tumultuous first year, hopefully they stick around long enough to hear what he has to say about economics and politics. Puzder’s opinions are sound, his prior success testifies to his capability, and his perspective on his unfortunate foray into politics even shows some humility. In other words, Puzder is exactly the kind of businessman politicians should listen to but don’t. We ignore him at our economic peril.