The crazy thing isn’t that Donald Trump could still win re-election in 2020. The crazy thing is that, with a 4.1 percent growth rate and a 4 percent unemployment rate, he’s stuck with a measly 41.2 percent approval rating.
Seriously, give any normal politician these economic numbers (Trump fans would argue that any normal politician couldn’t get these numbers!), and you’d be looking at a president expected to boost his party in the midterms and coast into his second term.
Not so with Trump, whose rhetoric and behavior prevents even those of us who like his Supreme Court picks, tax cuts, and economic success from embracing him. Then again, I’m not Trump’s target audience.
There’s an old saying that “those who seek to please everybody please nobody.” Trump seems to have taken that one to heart. I once assumed his vanity would lead him to court elites and seek popularity. Not so.
His style actually fits perfectly into a model of politics that has come to define 21st century American politics: Every election is a base election.
This idea originated in 2004, when—having (narrowly) won election in 2000 with the unifying message of “compassionate conservatism”—George W. Bush’s team discovered he could not win based solely (or even mostly) on persuasion.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist of the Bush-Cheney ’04 re-election campaign, observed that by 2000, the percentage of independent or persuadable voters had dwindled from 22 percent to a mere 7 percent of the vote. As such, “You could lose the 6 or 7 percent and [still] win the election,” Dowd explained in a 2005 post-mortem interview, “which was fairly revolutionary, because everybody up until that time had said, ‘Swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters.’"
This discovery was a decisive turn toward the dark side, true, but it was the only way for Team Bush to play the hand of cards they were holding (whether he was dealt a bad hand from the beginning is open to debate). Don’t hate the player―hate the game.
What bothers me more is that Bush’s successors have followed these same assumptions. Rather than accepting a static “base” of conservative or liberal voters like the coalition George W. Bush inherited from the 20th century, our last two presidents had the potential to redefine the political universe, realign assumptions, and reorder partisan lines. They had the talent, the opportunity, and the technology: Just not the motive.
Unlike Bush, Trump had the potential to flip the script—to reinvent the paradigm and govern differently. Indeed, Trump did a version of that in the campaign, when he flipped working-class white Obama voters in the Rust Belt. And, in order to keep them in the tent, Trump is now pursuing a ridiculous pro-tariff policy. This makes sense. As Ross Douthat explains, “because Trump naturally alienates women and can’t make a gesture of outreach to blacks or Hispanics without stepping on it with bigotry the next day, he doesn’t really have another path back to the White House if those Obama-Trump voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Ohio go Democratic or stay home.” So Trump panders to his new base with protectionist economic policies that threaten to undermine the great economic numbers that could actually expand his base.
Trump is still governing and campaigning for his base, even as he changed some of the people who normally constitute the Republican base.
It didn’t have to be this way. It is easy to look through a glass darkly in July of 2018 and say that the only way Trump can win is to double down on a base turnout model—but that’s mostly based on all the crazy baggage that has accrued in the last 18 months. Instead, imagine a world where Donald Trump decided to be everyone’s president.
Even if you assume that he had to campaign as a madman to win the GOP nomination and get elected, what if he had (a) started with infrastructure instead of a travel ban, (b) not fired James Comey, and (c) logged off of Twitter?
In a parallel universe, President Trump doesn’t just win the 2020 election (as Bret Stephens imagines), he does it in style—painting the map red—and coasting to an easy re-election on the strength of a revitalized economy.
Imagine a future where people talk about the great “Trump economy,” and generations of aging conservatives are still dining out on having worked for the old man back in 2018.
Talk about a missed opportunity.