August 6, 2019 | News | No Comments
With Congress in recess and the Democratic debates on hiatus until September—when the 2020 Presidential campaign will kick into high gear—this seems like a good point to take stock of where things stand politically. After all, the past few months have seen a series of major happenings, including the long-awaited publication of the Mueller report; a worsening in the humanitarian crisis at the southern border; the President hurling racist abuse at Democratic members of Congress and calling a major American city a “disgusting . . . rodent infested mess”; a major policy reversal by the Federal Reserve on interest rates; a bit of economic history being made when the current economic expansion became the longest on record; the renewal of missile testing by North Korea; a further ratcheting up of the tensions with Iran; and new threats from Donald Trump of a trade war with China, which sparked another market drop.
Surely, all these events must have had some impact on Trump’s standing in the country. But, actually, they haven’t. If you look at the Real Clear Politics poll average, which combines data from a wide range of polls, you will find that the President’s approval rating is 43.3 per cent. That is within a single percentage point of where Trump’s rating was at the start of the year, and it is virtually identical to where it was a year ago. On August 2, 2018, the figure was 43.5 per cent. Another twelve months of political turmoil, and practically no change at all.
This extraordinary stability suggests a couple of things. First, most Americans have already made up their minds about Trump, and the disruptions that he continues to cause on a daily basis only confirm their opinions. Second, the President and his advisers must know this to be true. It certainly appears to be shaping their 2020 campaign strategy, which is running on two tracks.
The first imperative for Trump is to fire up his core supporters and get them to the polls, especially in the Midwestern states that will be the key to winning the Electoral College. Hence, Trump’s regular appearances at huge MAGA rallies, such as the one he held in Cincinnati this week. Another motivating tool is Trump’s Twitter feed, which enables him to bypass the mainstream media, and issue his incitements—many of them racial—directly to his supporters. As the election approaches, a third tactic will become increasingly important: using the candidate’s already plentiful campaign funds to buy targeted advertising on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. In the second quarter alone, the Trump campaign raised about a hundred and five million dollars— approximately thirty million dollars more than Barack Obama raised at a comparable stage in 2011.
Citing Trump’s resources and the opportunities afforded to him by social media, members of the Trump team, particularly his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have insisted that the national opinion polls are a misleading indicator of his prospects for reëlection. “The way turnout now works, the abilities we have now to turn out voters—the polling can’t understand that,” Parscale said to CBS News when Trump formally launched his reëlection campaign, in June. “And that’s why it was so wrong in 2016. . . . Nobody got it right—not one public poll. The reason why—it's not 1962 anymore.” Last month, after the Trump campaign revealed its second-quarter fund-raising haul, Parscale told Fox News, “We’re not even in the main portion of the campaign yet and we’re already raising large numbers. This President, in the voice he has, the message he can control, in the way he can control what’s happening on the media. No one can touch this.”
The other half of Trump’s campaign strategy is based on demonizing the Democratic Party and its Presidential ticket. Trump was unpopular in 2016, too, but so was his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Enough of the voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton broke in Trump’s direction to give him a narrow victory in the Electoral College despite his big loss in the popular vote. In trying to repeat the trick, Trump is already portraying some elected Democrats as extremist and anti-American—and the rest as weaklings who are in hock to the extremist anti-Americans. In his campaign speech in Cincinnati, he spent all or part of twenty-nine minutes attacking the Democrats, according to an analysis by the Washington Post’s Philip Bump, compared to twenty minutes boasting about his own economic achievements. As usual, his explication wandered all over the place, but at one point he did manage to sum up much of his indictment in a single sentence: “Democrats are now the party of high taxes, high crime, open borders, late-term abortion, and they're the party, frankly, of socialism.”
By now, we are used to Trump being divisive. But in the past couple of weeks he has crossed another threshold, by making it clear that he has written off large chunks of the country and their residents, and isn’t even pretending to be a leader for the entire United States. His racist assault on the home town of Billie Holiday and Thurgood Marshall evoked “centuries-old stereotypes of black places—and people—as being dirty and unhygienic,” Vox’s P. R. Lockhart noted. The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, in a timely riposte, declared, “Better to have a few rats than to be one,” but if anyone thought it would end there they don’t know Trump. His attack on Baltimore and Representative Elijah Cummings turned out to be the beginning of a weeklong assault on cities with large minority populations and the Democrats that run them.
As the campaign intensifies, we will doubtless see more of this. And how are the Democrats responding to Trump’s scorched-earth politics? On the Presidential-campaign front, they have just completed the first stage of a primary battle that will go on for nearly another year. In Congress, meanwhile, the pressure to bring Trump to book is still growing: a majority of members of the House Democratic caucus have now come out in favor of starting some form of impeachment inquiry.
With twenty candidates on the stage over two nights, and with the CNN hosts seemingly intent on getting them to attack one another, the second round of debates was fractious and, at times, hard to follow. According to two polls taken after the debates, they didn’t have much impact on the race. Both surveys—from Morning Consult and Harvard-Harris—showed Joe Biden retaining a big lead over Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, and all the rest of the candidates struggling. This has been the clear pattern in the Democratic race for some time now.
If Biden came out of this week’s debates as the biggest winner, as the polls suggest, the main theme to emerge was one I wrote about on Thursday: the bitter divide over the policy legacy of Barack Obama. In addressing health care, immigration, criminal justice, and a number of other issues, the Warren–Sanders wing of the Party is eager to move beyond the last Democratic Presidency, whereas Biden often looks like he is pushing for a third term for the Obama Administration. An important thing to watch going forward will be whether the progressives can critique Obama’s policies without being seen to criticize Obama himself, who remains highly popular among Democratic voters. Biden, for his part, has a clear interest in conflating these two things. Hence his statements the morning after the Wednesday debate, when he remarked, “I was a little surprised at how much incoming there was about Barack, about the President. . . . I don't think there’s anything that he has to apologize for.”
With no televised debates for another six weeks, media attention may well shift away from the Democratic race and focus on the Democratic leadership in the House, which is facing a summer impeachment dilemma. On Friday, the congressman Salud Carbajal, who represents a district northwest of Los Angeles, called for Trump’s impeachment, saying that he “evaded truth, encouraged his staff to lie repeatedly to investigators, and engaged in obstruction.” Carbajal’s declaration means that a majority of House Democrats—a hundred and eighteen out of two hundred and thirty-five—have now called publicly for some form of impeachment proceeding.
Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, is famously reluctant to go down the route of impeachment, of course. (Back in March, she said it would be a distraction from the task of defeating Trump in 2020 and achieving Democratic majorities in Congress.) But as the numbers in her caucus have shifted Pelosi has modulated her language. In a lengthy statement after Carbajal’s announcement, Pelosi said that the Mueller report “laid out ten instances of the President’s obstruction of justice,” adding that Trump’s recent attempts to frustrate investigations by various Democratic-led committees was "further evidence of obstruction of justice.” Then, after describing some of the progress these committees were making, she concluded, “We owe it to our children to insure that no present or future President can dishonor the oath of office without being held accountable. In America, no one is above the law. The President will be held accountable.”
Does this mean that Pelosi is now leaning toward impeachment? Not yet, perhaps. But with a number of progressive groups vowing to spend the summer recess exerting pressure on the impeachment holdouts in their home districts, the dilemma facing the Speaker could be even more acute when Congress reassembles for the fall session. We shall see.
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