Distracted by Donald Trump’s disputatious style and flagrant violations of political norms, Democrats have consistently underestimated his political appeal. No way he could beat their candidate in 2016. But he did.
No way the New Yorker would actually make a conservative Supreme Court nomination, let alone get it through. But he did. Signed tax reform and repealed Obamacare’s core mandate, too. Plus dozens of executive orders contradicting his predecessor’s efforts.
Now Democrats and their sympathetic media are eagerly awaiting the oncoming annihilation of many of Trump’s congressional ground troops in the midterm elections just 40 weeks away. Maybe so. Republicans losing one or both chambers would stymie Trump’s agenda for at least two years, not to mention his district and higher court judicial appointments.
But Democrats appear to be making a familiar mistake again, one that’s become chronic for them this century. That is, in the words of another Republican president they misjudged, “misunderestimating” their GOP opponent.
Presidential midterms are usually political report cards on the party controlling the White House. Bill Clinton got shellacked in 1994. Riding support after 9/11, George W. Bush gained House and Senate seats in 2002, but then lost both houses in 2006.
All signs so far indicate Democratic candidates and the money-strapped national party are counting on winning back at least part of Congress, specifically the House, this year by playing off the country’s widely-held displeasure or disgust with Trump. They are confident that “We Are Not Trump” is sufficient to carry the day Nov. 6.
Anti-Trump animus might seem a tempting bet. A majority of Americans have disapproved of Trump’s job performance seemingly since within minutes of his taking the oath 53 weeks ago. Although eight-of-ten Republicans have stuck with him, Trump’s overall job approval has bobbed along from the low-forties to mid-thirties, historically low for a new chief executive.
Trump was elected by a dedicated plurality, promising to shake up Washington’s comfortable self-centered ways on both sides of the aisle. He’s certainly shaken things up from a style perspective, even going after his own party’s establishment leaders.
Trump has, in fact, invented the political equivalent of fracking, finding and creating vast reservoirs of subterranean turmoil to exploit for sometimes murky reasons.
Now, no one ever seeks or becomes president with a minute ego. Trump’s is, let’s say, plus-size. All the turmoil keeps the daily — even hourly — focus on him, which seems important to the man.
But it also often distracts from or completely destroys the daily focus on his own priorities, programs and strategies. Such behavior delights his you-tell-’em base. But it leaves most everyone else confused, ignorant or even worried about what he’s doing and why.
The president has lacked the day-to-day discipline for driving home the administration’s accomplishments and goals beyond his Twitter account. Some days, yes. Others not so much, often because he can’t resist some provocative tweet that causes opponents and critics to hyperventilate into hyperbole.
Nancy Pelosi, for instance, dismissed as “crumbs” the tax-reform-fueled corporate contagion of $1,000 employee bonuses. She’s a multi-millionaire, of course, so $1,000 is walking-around money.
Seeming out-of-touch is a real problem for the septuagenarian San Franciscan and her aged party leadership that is perhaps trying to overcome its liberal coastal tunnel vision and convince Middle America of its genuine concern, even for people living her legally.
Quick! What big midterm policy goals are Democrats driving as alternatives to Trump and the GOP? You know, the positive talking points they recite in unison day after day on every channel that will have them?
That is, the talking points other than “We’re not Trump, he’s terrible.” Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
For however long Trump lasts, and even with the unresolved threat of the special prosecutor, by the force of his personality and proclivities he has initiated a new kind of unpredictable U.S. politics. By historical precedent, he didn’t have a chance in 2016 — against 16 Republicans, then the artless what’s-her-name who dubbed Trump supporters “deplorables.”
By historical precedent, Trump’s party should be en route to losing at least 24 seats and House control. Remember, that chamber’s committees initiate all financial legislation and would have a free hand to subpoena and investigate any deplorables they choose.
But the president is not on the ballot. Stocks are soaring. Jobs are mounting nicely. The economy is growing at twice the rate under Obama.
Do voters really see lifelong Democrat donor Trump as sufficiently Republican to punish through their midterm ballots for congressmen? Note: Polls show Americans overwhelmingly detesting Congress, but consistently favoring their own member, which is where their vote actually goes.
Can Pelosi and her doddering crew convince enough Americans that she and her party should retrieve the Speaker’s gavel without outlining specifically what, if anything, positive they propose to do differently? Other than, of course, not being Donald Trump.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.