A skilled politician might be able to turn this situation to his advantage, as Bill Clinton did. Trump is not that politician.
I was hoping beyond hope that the Democrats might be able to take control of the Senate last week. That hope was probably unrealistic. As one commentator after another has pointed out, the seats that were up for re-election made the Democrats’ chances historically bad. In fact, it is amazing the Democrats did as well as they did in this Senate election. At one point, Republicans were imagining they might be able to get a veto-proof 60 vote majority in this election as the Democrats did in 2008. Obviously, that did not happen.
As of this writing, I still hold out hope that Bill Nelson will win in Florida and Kyrsten Sinema will win in Arizona. Arizona, in particular, is looking particularly promising. Either way, both races will likely face recounts since they are so close. If the Democrats can pull those two races out, the net gain for Republicans in the Senate would be only two seats, and in the off chance that there is a run-off in Mississippi, as seems possible, and another Alabama miracle happens, Mike Espy could be elected to the Senate, resulting in another Democratic pick-up. The only Senate seat Democrats took from the Republicans was Nevada, where Jacky Rosen beat Dean Heller, who was widely considered the most vulnerable Republican Senator.
It is worth noting that Democrats successfully defended a number of seats held by incumbents in states as Republican as Nevada is Democratic. Trump lost Nevada by two points. Rosen won by five points. In contrast, Democrats won in states won by Trump by 42 points (Joe Manchin in West Virginia), 21 points (Jon Tester in Montana), and they won the Governorship in a state Trump won by 20 points (Laura Kelly in Kansas). Thus, Democrats won in very Republican states, when no Republican Senator could survive in even a swing state.
The results in the swing states are particularly telling. In 2016, Trump narrowly won Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Had Clinton won Pennsylvania and two other of these swing states, she would be President. In the election, assuming Kyrsten Sinema holds onto her lead in Arizona, all these states would have been won by the Democratic Senate candidate. And in Wisconsin and Michigan, Democrats replaced Republican Governors who were in office when Trump was running. And this is not to mention Florida, which as I wrote above might still result in a Democratic Senate victory, and would have required only one other state of the above to elect Clinton. Therefore, without some major change, Trump is in major trouble in 2020.
I say “without major change,” because a successful politician can adjust his strategy based upon a midterm election loss. The classic case of this is Bill Clinton. In 1994, it was hard to imagine Clinton being re-elected after two chaotic years and a Republican wave taking control of the House of Representatives. Clinton, though, was a master politician. He tacked to the right, stole issues from Republicans while still keeping his base behind him, resulting in a smashing victory in 1996.
The key point of this analogy, however, is that Clinton needed to make significant change in himself and his White House. If we have learned anything about Trump, it is that he is unable to change. Time and again, had he simply shut his mouth and kept of Twitter, he would have been better off. Indeed, you could argue that this is the case with the midterm election. Had he simply shut up after the Kavanaugh nomination, Republicans would have been in better shape. But he is constitutionally incapable of controlling himself. That is a gift to the Democrats.
We must remember, after all, that the Republicans were running in a very favorable environment. In general, the country is enjoying nearly unprecedented peace and prosperity. The economy is humming, and has been on one of its longest expansions in history. Unemployment is at a near all time low. ISIS has seemingly been defeated, and we have not entered any new wars. The big accomplishment of the administration so far has been… a tax cut. Who doesn’t like those? We can quibble about the credit Trump deserves for any of these accomplishments, or even argue over whether these represent positive accomplishments at all, but objectively, the Republicans should have been sitting pretty in this election.
So what happened? I would argue two things. First, the Republicans have been shown to be exactly what liberals like myself have been accusing them of for years: selfish, racist and misogynistic. The tax cut is historically unpopular for the simple fact that it was so clearly a give-away to the rich. Health care became the defining issue of this election because… well, why would they want to take away health care from millions of people? Trump’s rhetoric and the Kavanaugh nomination have shown that Republicans don’t respect you if you aren’t white and male. And it is not just Trump. Enough Republicans have joined in on his rhetoric to show that this is a party-wide problem, not just one particular to Trump.
So this is the first reason things get only worse from here: Republicans have been exposed for their hypocrisy. No longer can they credibly claim that they favor deficit reduction. They have proven that their goal really is the transfer of wealth from the many to the few. Similarly, no longer can they claim to care about the integrity of the process. When Democrats push through legislation with minimal hearings or pack the Courts with their judges, Republicans will have nobody to blame but themselves. After all, we will only be doing what they did.
The second problem Republicans had in this election was Trump himself. This is a guy who has shown repeatedly that he cannot control himself. Some argue that he is skilled politically, but in fact, his political strategy, if you can call it that, lacks all nuance. He has one response to any situation: attack. But the skilled politician knows what Kenny Rogers knew: you have to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run… In short, politics is a game of nuance that requires different approaches to different circumstances. Trump completely lacks that ability.
Polls have shown repeatedly that Trump hurts rather than helps himself when he goes public. The best example of this is the Kavanaugh nomination. There actually was an uptick in Trump’s popularity following the nomination. But his inability to appear sympathetic or to even shut his mouth in the wake of domestic terrorist attacks completely squandered this advantage, even turning it into a worse rating than he had prior to the Kavanaugh fight.
Much was made of the fact in the 2016 race that every time Clinton was in the news, her negatives went up, and every time Trump was in the news, his negatives went up. Thanks to James Comey, Clinton was in the news right about the time the election was held. Had the election been held at a different time, say right after the release of the pussy grabbing recording, Trump probably would have lost. So if Democrats have a candidate who can manage not to alienate people every time he or she talks, we should be in pretty good shape.
So this brings up the second reason things will only get worse for Trump. I would argue his is not looking good for re-election, as long as the Democrats can stay unified, they can keep the energy going from this cycle, and they don’t nominate someone unelectable. Someone who is not divisive, who can credibly deliver a message of economic inclusion, and who does not swim in Trump’s toilet — I’m talking to you here, Elizabeth Warren — stands a strong chance of winning the Clinton states plus the swing states the Democrats won in this midterm. As I stated above, that combination wins the Democrats the Presidency.
The third reason things only get worse for Trump from here on out has to do with factors outside of everyone’s control. Right now, the economy is humming, largely on a sugar high as a result of the Republican tax cut last year. Since the Democrats now have the ability to block any such irresponsible legislation, Trump is unlikely to get another chance to goose the economy with debt. Most economists agree that next year, once the fuel from the tax cuts runs out, we are likely to face an economic slowdown. The only question is how deep the slowdown is and whether it becomes a full-blown recession. Trump’s ill-advised trade wars only increase this possibility. If you want support for this argument, just look at what the stock market has been doing lately. They are nervous. And this doesn’t even account for the possibility of some international or domestic crisis showing just how inept his administration continues to be. The point is that the current economic and political climate was just about as good as Republicans could hope for, and they couldn’t win with that advantage. Anything other than such an ideal climate, unlikely two years from now, will be less advantageous and will take away from the Republicans the best argument for their re-election.
Finally, there has been much commentary on how Trump has the ability to dominate our national conversation. To give him credit, the one thing he is good at is getting attention for himself. But that is a double-edged sword. We are a notoriously fickle country. Trump has already experienced that, going from high-flier in the 1980s to has-been in the 1990s to celebrity again with the success of the Apprentice. No show can survive being on every night, year after year. Remember the frenzy over “Who wants to be a millionaire?” or “American Idol?” Eventually, every show gets cancelled because we get tired of it. Hearing the same B.S. from Trump, night after night, only diminishes our interest in him. Every time he speaks, there is another group of people who once followed him who get tired of hearing from him.
Unfortunately, Trump will hold onto support from a substantial minority of the population. But that too is good for the Democrats. The only hope the Republicans have of reviving their hopes is replacing or limiting Trump. But his support among a large group of Republican voters will limit the ability of any Republican office-holder to do so. In short, they are prisoners of the Trump show.
I haven’t even mentioned the coming revelations from the Mueller investigation, new scandals coming to light, or an attractive Democratic agenda emanating from the House but blocked by Trump and the Republicans in the Senate. All these factors are likely, including many others that I have not listed or cannot know. Nevertheless, the point is clear. If Republicans couldn’t win in this political environment, things look even worse for them in 2020. I must admit that it’s hard to feel sorry for them.
If you liked this post, you might also like: