Trump hasn’t expanded his base, but what he has is solidly behind him. Meantime, fractures within the Democratic Party are widening.
If you were running for president, which dynamic would you rather have:
2. Division, infighting and an identity crisis within your party and the task of explaining to voters that, despite that good economy, they’re worse off than they were four years ago?
The first situation describes President Donald Trump as he gears up for 2020. The second describes what we’ve seen thus far of Democrats as they try to take him down.
It is for these reasons — and despite that fact that he is the most dishonest president ever (by far), a swamp-dwelling charlatan with no morals who has degraded his office, empowered racism, undermined the Constitution and made most of the world laugh at us — that Trump could be in better shape for winning re-election than his enemies might realize, or be willing to admit.
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Incongruous as it may seem, all of the above is true. The economy is good. Our president is a disgrace. One of these narratives will prevail in November 2020.
Make no mistake: Trump is a weak incumbent. Despite the good economy mentioned above, including a drop in the unemployment rate last month to 3.8 percent, the president remains unpopular with most Americans. Two poll of polls — FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics — peg his approval at 41.6 percent and 42.8 percent, respectively.
Trump supporters have pointed out that this is meaningless, given that other presidents were even less popular at this stage — about 26 months in — than their hero. For example, Trump is about 3 percentage points more popular than Jimmy Carter was in March 1979. But since when has Carter — who Trump has often maligned — become the benchmark to which Trumpsters aspire? Beside, wasn’t Carter’s re-election bid crushed by Ronald Reagan a year and a half later?
Trump still has an edge despite himself
The other president who was lower than Trump in the polls after 26 months was Reagan himself. While technically true, it’s disingenuous to equate Trump’s situation with The Gipper’s. The 3.8 percent jobless rate Trump gets to brag about? In March 1983, it was 10.3 percent. Of course Reagan was unpopular. But what’s Trump’s excuse?
I suspect that if Trump were cleaner, more decent, more befitting of the great office he holds, his approval would be higher, perhaps significantly so. But we all know that’s not who Donald Trump is. It’s not who he ever has been, or ever can be.
Not a day goes by when we’re not reminded of this. This is why Trump is his own worst enemy. He, his staffers and his family are up to their necks in so many scandals and investigations for alleged personal and professional sleaziness that it distracts from the fact that most people are, to varying degrees, doing better. He blames the news media for not saying this enough. But he’s the one who cheated on his third wife with a porn star, then paid her off. He’s the one who hired an alleged wife-beater, hired men who are now on their way to prison and all the rest. He blames the messenger for pointing out the message. He’s never to blame for anything.
So Trump’s approval is low, he’s one of the weakest incumbents ever, and it’s all his fault. And yet, an early look at the Electoral College gives him a very slight edge. At least this is what’s projected by the Crystal Ball, put out by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. It says Trump — assuming he’s the candidate — has 248 safe, likely or leaning electoral votes of the 270 needed to win, while the generic Democratic candidate has 244. Just 46 electoral votes can truly be considered tossups.
Democrats are eating each other alive
Meantime, Democrats are eating themselves alive as they fight over just how left they want go. They like “socialism” (which is in the eye of the beholder) more than capitalism; and speak — notably Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — of redistributing wealth accumulated by others.
These are big ideas, and whatever the merits of this healthy and multifaceted debate, it’s all catnip for Trump, who gets to sit back and do what he does best: Brand his enemies early — and get it to stick. He has already (and talk about ironic) labeled them as dangerous anti-constitutional extremists who will destroy the country. It’s also worth noting that for all of the president’s whining about how unfair the news media are to him, there has been extensive coverage, and not just on Fox News, of the Democrats’ circular firing squad.
And so we return to the two dynamics described at the beginning of this column. Trump hasn’t expanded his base, but what he has is solidly behind him. Meanwhile, fractures within the Democratic Party are widening.
The conventional wisdom is that after selecting a nominee a year or so from now, the Democrats will circle the wagons into a cohesive anti-Trump coalition. But who’s to say that will actually happen? Remember: One in 10 people who backed Sanders during his 2016 fight against Hillary Clinton wound up voting for Trump that November.
The Democratic field is already crowded; never underestimate the power of all the egos that are about to be bruised.
Paul Brandus, founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of “Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency” and is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport
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