Last week’s political events showed President Trump continues to have a good chance of re-election. But developments in the Democratic Party may reduce his chances of victory.
That the House Republicans voted unanimously against impeachment shows the President retains his support among his party base, and portends both his acquittal in the Senate and his strength at the ballot box next November. Augmenting his political strength is that of the economy, which remains robust. No incumbent president has ever been defeated for re-election during economic times as good as those we currently enjoy. But in 2020 these factors may not be enough.
President Trump’s greatest obstacle to re-election is the relatively small size of his political base. His public support is quite deep, but far narrower than that enjoyed by, say, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton when they romped to re-election, courtesy of voters who approved their respective stewardships of the economy. President Trump’s political base was broad enough to secure his victory in 2016 against a widely unpopular candidate with a grossly incompetent staff. But even with those disadvantages the Democrats won the popular vote by a moderately large margin, and came close to winning the electoral vote as well. And last week’s debate among Democratic presidential candidates, and new polls showing their progress or lack thereof in winning the support of Democratic activists in next year’s early primaries and caucuses, show that that the Democrats will be more formidable this time around. So if the President wants to improve his reelection chances, he must therefore broaden his base.
In the past, I’ve noted that if the public perceives one party’s presidential candidate to be too radical, it will, all else being equal, invariably vote for the opposition party’s candidate instead. With their support for the fiscally irresponsible and unrealistic Green New Deal and Medicare for All, either Senator Warren or Senator Sanders would be especially weak and vulnerable candidates whom President Trump would have a good chance of defeating.
But what last week’s debates and polls are showing is that relatively moderate Democrats are beginning to gain the ascendancy in their party. Both Senator Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg are gaining in the polls, while former Vice President Joe Biden remains strong. All three helped themselves with solid debate performances, and thereby increased the probability that a moderate rather than a radical will win the Democratic presidential nomination. This is bad news for the President: He will have a far more difficult time winning against any of these than he would have against Senators Warren or Sanders; hence the need to expand his own base.
But two other events from last week show that the President lacks at least the willingness, if not the ability, to do so. First, he mocked the memory of recently deceased former Congressman John Dingell by speculating on the direction from which his soul was observing current events, apparently because Dingell’s widow and successor in the House voted for the President’s impeachment.
To make matters worse, members of the President’s campaign staff circulated a story that South Carolina James Clymer, who, as Democratic Whip, is the third-ranking Democrat and the highest ranking African American in Congress, called for his lynching. It’s a good story, but the only problem is that it’s false. Such falsehoods are not the way to build trust among the voters (btw, I stupidly posted the story myself on my Crosswise on Politics blog; I took it down after a good friend who had done what I had not done—homework—provided me with links to the real story exonerating Clymer; the rather confusing controversy can be read about at https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/clyburn-articles-impeachment).
No doubt the President and his campaign staff believe his hardball tactics and antics will win him re-election—after all, neither his comments on Mexican immigrants nor the Access Hollywood tape nor his other assorted crudities kept him from winning in 2016. Moreover, the President may well feel (understandably) embittered by what’s been said about himself and his family. Even before his inauguration, his critics called his wife a whore, his youngest son an incipient psychopathic school shooter, and his daughter his lover. Celebrities have called for his assassination through bombing, decapitation, or shooting (Robert de Niro’s hope that the President be doused in excrement seems mild in comparison).
But unless the President realizes that 2020 will be vastly different from 2016, that his opponent will be far more formidable with a campaign staff from which the Three Stooges have been excluded, and that his own bitterness may blind his judgment and lead him to words and deeds that even his supporters find disqualifying, President Trump may not get the reelection victory he and his supporters crave.
Whether and how he can expand his heretofore inflexible base remain unknown. But a good start would be to say less about everything, say nothing he would not want said about himself, and let the economy and his other achievements speak for themselves—with some help from his able Vice President and other surrogates. Can he develop the self-discipline to do so? Who knows? But miracles do happen—sometimes.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.