Leonhardt: Trump the vulnerable

Leonhardt: Trump the vulnerable

January 8th, 2019 by David Leonhardt in Opinion Times Commentary

President Donald Trump speaks on the South Lawn of the White House as he walks from Marine One last Sunday in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Photo by Alex Brandon

Now that a new Congress has taken office, the vote count from the 2018 midterms is all but final. It shows that Democrats won the national popular vote in the House races by almost 9 percentage points. That margin is smashing — larger, by comparison, than in any presidential race since Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election landslide.

The size of the victory has gone somewhat overlooked, because election-night storylines still have an outsize influence on people's perceptions. On election night, more than a dozen House races were still uncertain, and Democrats were suffering disappointing losses in several (mostly red-state) Senate and governor races.

But the final story of the 2018 midterms should be clear: They were a giant warning sign to the Republican Party, also known as the Party of Trump.

Without a significant improvement in President Donald Trump's standing, he would be a big underdog in 2020. Remember, presidential elections have higher turnout than midterms, and the larger electorate helps Democrats. At least 10 million more people — and maybe many more — are likely to vote in the next presidential election than voted in the 2018 midterms. Those extra votes, many from younger or nonwhite Americans, would make Trump's re-election all the more difficult.

It's not just Trump, either. If his approval rating doesn't rise over the next two years, multiple Senate Republicans will be in trouble. I've long assumed that Susan Collins of Maine could win re-election for as long as she wanted. But she may not be able to do so if Trump loses Maine by 15 percentage points — which was the combined Republican deficit in Maine's two midterm congressional races.

Then there is Cory Gardner of Colorado (where Republicans lost the 2018 popular vote deficit by more than 10 percentage points), Joni Ernst of Iowa (where the Republican deficit was 4 points) and Martha McSally of Arizona (where it was 2 points).

If Trump's popularity were to drop at all, another batch of senators — from North Carolina, Texas and Georgia, three states where Republicans only narrowly won the 2018 popular vote — would become more endangered. Even Kansas elected a Democratic governor last year, and it will have an open Senate seat in 2020. On Friday, Pat Roberts, the Republican incumbent, announced he would not run again.

Over the weekend, I published a column making the case that Trump deserved to be removed from office — that he has violated both federal law and his constitutional oath, that he is manifestly unfit to be president and that his continued tenure is a danger to the country. Of course, regardless of those dangers or his sins, he will remain in office so long as congressional Republicans want him there. And I know that many people, from across the ideological spectrum, believe that Trump's standing with Republicans remains secure.

I think he is more vulnerable than many people realize.

First, there are the political risks that his current standing creates for other Republicans. It's true that his approval rating has been notably stable, around 40 percent. It's also notably weak. Thus the Republican whupping in the midterms.

Second, Trump's political fortunes are more likely to deteriorate than improve this year. The economy isn't likely to get a lot stronger. The various investigations aren't going away. And Trump will surely commit more unforced errors, like the government shutdown. "It's still difficult to predict how all this ends," political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote Friday, about the shutdown. "But it's hard to see it ending well for Republicans."

Third, Republican support for Trump may remain broad, but it's shallow. Trump has faced far more intraparty criticism than most presidents. Since the midterms, it seems to be growing. Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, resigned and criticized Trump while doing so. Mitt Romney entered the Senate by once again turning against Trump. Collins and Gardner have started grumbling about the shutdown.

As Republicans begin looking nervously to 2020, their willingness to break with Trump may increase. For some of them, their political survival may depend on breaking with him. If that happens, it's quite possible that his approval rating will begin to drift below 40 percent — and the bad news will then feed on itself.

No, none of this is guaranteed. Democrats could overreach, by quickly impeaching Trump and thereby uniting Republicans. Or Trump could end up navigating the next few months surprisingly well. But that's not the mostly likely scenario.

The normal rules of politics really do apply to Trump. He won a shocking victory in 2016, and his opponents have lacked confidence ever since. They should no longer lack it.

Donald Trump still has great power as the president of the United States. But as presidents go, he is very weak. His opponents — Democrats, independents and Republicans who understand the damage he is doing to the country — should be feeling energized.

The New York Times

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