By most accounts, there is an electoral wave building in favor of the Democratic party. Democrats are in good shape to win the necessary 23 seats to take control of the House of Representatives, nab several governorships, and collect a multitude of state legislative seats. The Senate, by virtue of this year’s map that favors Republicans, should remain in GOP hands. But all in all, a wave seems to be looming.
Granted, the out party usually does well in midterm elections such as the one scheduled for November. But this is not always a guarantee. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama suffered routs in 1982, 1994, and 2010, respectively, but John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush did not in 1962, 1978, and 2002.
If we look only at the macro conditions of the country, we might think that the Republicans are in reasonably good shape. The United States is not bogged down in any major wars abroad. At home, we have a reasonably strong economy, bolstered by the most recently reported growth rate, of 4.1 percent. And the incumbent party has not passed any legislation that has met with the widespread disapproval of the voters. That should put the GOP of 2018 in better shape than it was in 1982, or that Democrats were in 1994 or 2010.
The predicament for today’s Republicans is not the agenda or the state of the union. The predicament is the president himself, Donald Trump.
Trump is not currently facing a Watergate-level scandal that threatens to bring down his administration. It looked as if this might be the case in, say, the spring of 2017, when it seemed to his critics as though he may have fired FBI director James Comey because the Bureau was on the verge of uncovering collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. But there seems to have been no collusion, and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is now primarily focused on apparently unrelated matters. Maybe Mueller will conclude that Trump obstructed justice, but that is not the issue at the moment.
Instead, Trump’s challenge is that he seems incapable of acting the way most Americans expect their president to act.
Trump has undoubtedly advanced the conservative agenda, but he has not done so in a presidential manner.
Our country is a republic, and a very egalitarian one at that. We all love a rags-to-riches story, after all. With a little grit and pluck, anybody can do anything in the United States. Our fascination with the British monarchy is a manifestation of our own commitment to equality — we would never have an institution like the Crown in the United States, so we all stare agog at it whenever one of the royals gets married.
But still, we have our limits. Our monument to George Washington may be a plain, white obelisk, but it is still a monument. The person who occupies Washington’s chair is expected to act like that great man, at least a little bit. He is supposed to be measured, restrained, and dignified.
Trump has been none of those things. He has undoubtedly advanced the conservative agenda, but he has not done so in a presidential manner.
Return to Comey’s firing in the spring of 2017. Stipulate that there was no collusion, and therefore no underlying crime whose investigation Trump obstructed. The president was well within his constitutional rights to fire Comey, but the way he went about it was erratic and capricious. The left-wing #Resistance and diehard Never Trumpers took this as evidence of a crime, but that is not how the average swing voter — the sort who may well hand Democrats control of the House — came to see it. She saw it as unpresidential.
Or consider Trump’s recent summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, again assuming that there was no collusion. At the Trump–Putin joint press conference after the private meeting, Trump manifestly failed to act the way we expect the president of the United States to behave. When a reporter asked Trump whether he believed Putin or the conclusion of “every U.S. intelligence agency” that Russia interfered in our election, Trump gave a hedging answer: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” The most remarkable thing about it is that he must have known such a question was coming, and he therefore could have prepared a clearer answer that rebuked the Russian dictator to his face, defended American intelligence efforts, and still registered his frustration with the ongoing investigation. Trump’s critics saw his answer as evidence that he is in Russia’s pocket, but the voters in the middle of the country probably saw his behavior as simply more evidence that he cannot behave himself.
And Trump’s entire Twitter feed is a case study in how not to act as president. It is intemperate, full of factual errors, needlessly provocative, and personally insulting to his (real or perceived) political rivals.
In our system of government, the president occupies a strange role. He is simultaneously the head of a party faction and the head of state. So he endeavors to implement an agenda that some large portion of the country probably opposes, while also seeking to represent the entire nation. This is a balancing act that has confounded many presidents over the centuries. If there is an institutional defect in the office of the president, it is probably this.
But Trump does not even try to maintain the balance. He has totally rejected the informal demands of acting like the head of the nation and instead continues to behave as if he is in the Republican primaries in the winter and spring of 2016. We have had misbehaving presidents before, but never have we had a president act in such an undignified manner for all the country to witness, every day, live as it happens.
This is a big reason why Republicans are set to lose a substantial number of seats in the 2018 midterms – because Trump is refusing to meet the bare minimum of public expectation regarding the presidency. We the people do not want the dog-and-pony show of the British royals, but we expect a little class from our president — a little touch of the Washingtonian mystique. Trump lacks it, and his party is going to be punished for it in November. Bigly.