In recent weeks, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been invested in a talking point reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s pitch in 1980: “Is America better off today than they were two years ago?” Grammatical concerns notwithstanding, it’s a line the GOP leader has pushed more than once of late.
This week on Fox News, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz echoed the rhetoric.
“It’s our responsibility to lean in and explain, listen, was America better a couple of years ago when we had the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years or is it better now when people are hurting across this country? Was America better when gas was $2 a gallon or $4 a gallon under Joe Biden?”
In fairness, the Texan went on to also reference illegal border crossings, though the comparison lacked context: The Covid pandemic in 2020 led to unusually strict border controls, including a temporary suspension on nonessential travel.
I was, however, especially interested in Cruz’s other points, so let’s consider them one at a time.
Two years ago, the senator boasted, “we had the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years.” While it’s true that the unemployment rate fell to 3.5% before the pandemic, it soon ballooned to 14.7%. Two years ago in August, it was still painfully high at 8.4%, and it was 6.7% in Donald Trump’s last full month in the White House.
After President Biden took office, there was a jobs boom in the United States — far more jobs have been created in Biden’s first year and a half than in Trump’s first three years combined — and the unemployment rate reached 3.5% again in July, which is the same standard Cruz cited as proof of economic greatness. If the senator is looking for evidence that national conditions were better two years ago, he appears to have reality backward.
Maybe his gas prices talking point is more compelling? Perhaps, but the details matter: Prices at the pump collapsed in 2020 because there was a recession caused by a global pandemic. (Prices similarly fell in late 2008 because of the Great Recession. This was not a positive development, cheap gas notwithstanding.)
Circling back to our recent coverage, the political strategy is obvious: With polls showing Americans dissatisfied with the nation’s direction, Republicans like Cruz and McCarthy want them to reject the incumbent Democratic majority and vote for a dramatic shift to the right. If folks don’t believe they’re “better off” than they were two years ago, the argument goes, then they should necessarily rally behind the opposition party that isn’t in power.
The fundamental problem with the GOP’s pitch, however, is the simple fact that the United States is most definitely better off than it was two years ago.
The summer of 2020 really wasn’t that long ago — and it wasn’t great. There was civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The national unemployment rate was more than twice as high as it is now. Covid was claiming the lives of over 1,500 Americans per day — a number that was climbing — and the first vaccine shots were still months away. The United States’ international reputation and credibility were in the toilet.
The question isn’t whether the United States is better off now than it was two years ago. The question is why so many prominent Republicans don’t know the answer.
To be sure, there’s ample room for conversation about how much further we have to go. What’s more, if Republicans want to have a discussion about how much credit Democrats and their legislative successes deserve for helping turn things around, that sounds like a debate worth having.
But if Cruz and McCarthy are convinced we were better off two years ago, they either have an exceedingly short memory or they’re confused about what “better” means.