In 2016, congressional Democrats were given a gift: the election of Donald Trump. Trump’s approval ratings had never crossed 51 percent; they’d consistently hovered in the low 40s. His personal popularity had always been low, and he had an obvious penchant for jumping on political land mines with both feet. All Democrats had to do was sound reasonable, and they’d probably take back the House of Representatives in sweeping fashion.
The latest polls show that the generic ballot lead for Democrats has dropped from a nearly insurmountable 13 points in December to about three points today. According to a new CBS News/YouGov tracking poll, the odds on a Democratic House takeover are now about 50/50. On average since 1865, the party in power has lost 32 House seats and two Senate seats in midterm elections; Democrats need just 24 seats to flip the House this year. Yet they’re still falling short.
Because Democrats can’t hem themselves in on two topics: Trump and policy.
Democrats had a massive opportunity when Trump was elected. As an ideological nonconformist and a reactionary personality, Trump seems particularly susceptible to praise and flattery. Imagine if Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) had strolled into the Oval Office during the first week of Trump’s presidency, sidled up to Trump, and told him that they’d love to impose indelible change on America by granting everyone comprehensive health care. There’s a decent shot that with the help of then–White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Trump would have gone full Bernie Sanders. That isn’t complete speculation — in September 2017, Trump went over the heads of congressional Republicans in favor of working with Schumer and Pelosi to avoid a government shutdown.
Even the high hopes surrounding porn star Stormy Daniels have gone flaccid.
But instead of playing nice with Trump, while stoking the flames of anti-Trump ire with their base, Democrats promised a deus ex machina: Trump would flame out, retire, be impeached, be prosecuted by Robert Mueller for Russian collusion, and all the rest. Trump wasn’t merely a bad guy — he was the worst guy, a buffoonish Hitler clad in the armor of cruel conservatism.
But there’s a problem: Trump hasn’t flamed out. Mueller so far hasn’t come up with credible evidence of Russian collusion, and even the high hopes surrounding porn star Stormy Daniels have gone flaccid. Trump himself seems alternatively irked by his office and trollishly empowered by it, but never willing to walk away. That’s dispiriting to the Democratic base, which spends each morning fuming over the latest Trumpian twitterstorm, thrilling to the extremist musings of kooks such as Maxine Waters (D., Calif.).
All of which means that Democrats have been forced to turn to the second prong of their 2018 attack: policy.
Sanders’s preferred policy prescriptions have already been embraced by Seattle, which is busily alienating its major businesses ranging from Amazon to Microsoft, and California, which continues to look more like Mad Max than Vermont.
But on policy, the Democratic record looks even worse. Trump’s rhetoric continues to fuel feelings of unmoored chaos, but the markets continue to soar, the job market grows, and we’re not in the middle of any serious foreign-policy crisis. In 2016, CNN Money warned, “A Trump win would sink stocks.” Nope. Pelosi warned that Trump’s tax cuts were mere “crumbs” that would amount to nothing. Nope. Hollywood celebrities warned about the significant possibility of global thermonuclear war. Nope. Democrats promised a dystopian hellscape. Instead, they got an economy so good that the New York Times ran a piece headlined “We Ran Out of Words to Describe How Good the Jobs Numbers Are.”
Democrats have therefore had to fall back on their font of ideas: a 76-year-old socialist loonbag from Vermont, the ideological leader of their party. Bernie Sanders has spent the last few months gallivanting around stirring up the populist revolution for $15 minimum wage. His most recent target: Disney, a corporation that leans to the left and employs some 200,000 Americans. Sanders’s preferred policy prescriptions have already been embraced by Seattle, which is busily alienating its major businesses ranging from Amazon to Microsoft, and California, which continues to look more like Mad Max than Vermont.
So perhaps policy isn’t the big winner Democrats are looking for, either.
Which means that Democrats have only two strategies left: wait for Trump to implode or wait for his policies to implode. Both are possible — Trump is the most volatile president in modern American history, and economic downturns are rarely foreseeable. But for the moment, Democrats are in real trouble.
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