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Republicans confront the 'better off four years ago' question

"Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Republicans used to like this question. In 2020, however, it's complicated.
Image: Flanked by fellow Republicans, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks to Capitol Hill reporters following the Republicans' weekly policy luncheon in Washington
Flanked by fellow Republicans, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks to Capitol Hill reporters following the Republicans' weekly policy luncheon in Washington on July 31, 2018.Allison Shelley / Reuters file

It's a phrase linked to Ronald Reagan, the president who uttered it: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" The Republican asked it the first time in 1980, as a way of making the case against then-President Jimmy Carter, and Reagan asked it again four years later, during his re-election bid.

Most voters answered the question the way Reagan wanted him to, and he won both races with ease. But in the process, the former president created a standard that comes up anew every four years, as the electorate is asked to consider whether the status quo marks an improvement over the recent past.

In 2020, it's a question Republicans are approaching in an exceedingly awkward way.

In an interview with Washington Post Live on Tuesday, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri laid out the complicated Republican pitch. "Were you better in January of this year than you were three years ago or four years ago?" Blunt asked. "Almost every American, if they look at that question, would say we absolutely were better off."

Right off the bat, the premise of the Missouri Republican's argument is suspect. In January, for example, Donald Trump's approval rating was roughly 42%, and nearly all polling found the incumbent president trailing Joe Biden in hypothetical general-election match-ups.

This is not a situation in which things were going swimmingly for a president and his party before a disaster struck. Many Americans who reflected on the state of the nation before the coronavirus pandemic were not impressed with Trump's handiwork.

That said, the most important two words in Roy Blunt's quote were "in January." Americans were better off than they were a few years earlier, he said, as of "January."

The trouble, of course, is that quite a bit has happened since then. When the Washington Post's Paul Kane asked the senator how Republicans can simply look past the developments since February, he "muddled an answer."

And that's not surprising; if I were in Blunt's shoes, I'm not sure how I'd respond, either.

In effect, the GOP's pitch to the electorate is, "Things weren't that bad before Trump failed spectacularly in his response to a deadly pandemic, delivering arguably the worst performance of any leader in the industrialized world. But if we just focus on January, and not dwell on what transpired in 2020, we'll appreciate the value in staying the course."

It's a tough sell, and at least for now, it doesn't appear to be working.