Most rational observers of the political scene in the United States could be forgiven for suggesting there is no chance of Donald Trump being re-elected President in 2020. After all, and to use some of the words of which he, by his own account, knows so many, he is mendacious, a prevaricator, a philanderer, a narcissist, hubristic, benighted, repugnant, truculent and a solipsistic bloviator. The 2020 presidential elections should be a “slam dunk” for the Democrats. Here are some thoughts as to why that is far from being the case.

First, notwithstanding some idle talk about potential challengers, it is highly unlikely that Trump will face a Republican challenger for the Party’s nomination. In what is now really the Trump Party, a challenge would be an expensive form of political suicide. Only once, in 1852, has an elected president been successfully challenged for the nomination for a second term.

In the absence of a challenge, Trump will be able to spend all his time, or at least whatever time he has left after devouring Fox News or playing golf at Mar-a-Lago, campaigning, which he loves and at which he is frighteningly effective, rather than governing, which he clearly dislikes intensely and at which he is hopelessly inept.

Second, incumbency provides a sitting president with huge advantages. Whereas the candidates for the nomination of the party in opposition will be forced to divide the available financial resources, in varying degrees, all the governing party’s funding will be channeled to the incumbent. In addition, even though it may amount to nothing more than a series of slogans, such as Make America Great Again – Again or Build That Wall – Again, the sitting president largely sets the agenda. If, notwithstanding the lowered forecasts of the majority of experts, the American economy continues to be strong, Trump will benefit, whether or not he is truly entitled to take the credit. Furthermore, in the event that one or more of his foreign policy initiatives, whether in regard to China or North Korea, permits him to claim victory, either real or Pyrrhic, he will cloak himself in glory.

Third, and while this may appear somewhat bizarre in Trump’s case, he may well be able to make the claim that voters should elect the most experienced of the candidates. That might be difficult if the Democrats were to select Joe Biden, but easier in most other cases. While one can seriously doubt whether Trump has acquired any useful experience from his two years in office, since he has always known more than everyone else, he will certainly make it a talking point.

Fourth, Trump enters the 2020 campaign with perhaps the most ferociously loyal group of supporters of any candidate for a second term. While, depending on the poll, his approval rating ranges from 40% to 44%, members of the cult are unshakeable. They insist he has kept his campaign promises and is fighting for them. They simply do not care that he lies incessantly, and only by accident tells the truth. They simply do not care that his “best, best friends” are Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un and many of the world’s other autocrats. They simply do not care that he has alienated most of the allies of the United States and undermined the institutions of the world order that have been built since the Second World War. They simply do not care that he insults not only his political adversaries, but, even more gratuitously, his colleagues, and most especially those he has appointed to office.

“Incredibly… a recent poll indicated 66% of Republicans consider Trump to be trustworthy, and that 54% view him as a good role model for their children.”

They simply do not care that he has been systematically destroying domestic institutions which serve all Americans, including the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and many others. They simply do not care that his only actual legislative achievement, and not a very difficult one with a Republican Congress, was a tax law which provided massive benefits to the already rich and, as many ordinary taxpayers are now learning, illusory benefits to them. They simply do not care that he has refused to produce his income tax returns, that he has celebrated nepotism to the highest possible level, and that he continues to enrich himself through various conflicts of interest.

Incredible as it may seem, a recent poll indicated that 66% of registered Republicans consider him to be trustworthy, and that 54% of them view him as a good role model for their children.

Fifth, Trump benefits, as do all presidents, from an overwhelming media presence, particularly on television. That being said, he has the further crucial advantage of having what is essentially a state news network, Fox News. While it is true that there are some competent and objective journalists within Fox News, its real benefit to Trump flows from Sean Hannity and Friends, his propagandists.

Sixth, by a form of mysterious alchemy, Trump has not only persuaded Republicans to abandon their traditional principles, including fiscal conservatism, free trade, a world order based on global institutions, a network of democratic allies and the rule of law, but he has persuaded Republican Senators and Representatives to become nothing more than a band of cheerleaders, completely abandoning their role as members of the second co-equal branch of government, the legislative branch.

Seventh, it is highly probable that the vast majority of Republican supporters will actually vote, that current polling may understate support for Trump, as studies indicate many people are embarrassed to declare their support to pollsters, and that the Democrats will have their usual struggle to ensure that their supporters, particularly amongst African-Americans and Hispanics, go to the polls.

Finally, as was demonstrated in the 2016 presidential election, the Republican nominee, through the workings of the Electoral College, starts with a structural advantage. While Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by some 3 million votes, Trump won a significant victory in the Electoral College. Put simply, the advantage flows from the fact that a vote in one of the small, red states has greater weight than a vote in some of the larger Democratic-leaning states such as New York and California. (The Electoral College is a subject for another day.)

However, the basic fact remains that, if the Democrats do not win in 2020, they will simply have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Or, to abuse another cliché, they will have shot themselves in the far left foot. Sadly, they appear to be off to a good start.

While it is too early to assess the merits of the decision, there is at least a serious risk that the Democratic National Committee has made an error in declaring that it will not permit the Fox News network to host and moderate any of the debates among its presidential candidates. Not only is it rare for Daniel to win by not even going to the lion’s den, but the Democrats would be abandoning the opportunity, however difficult it may appear, to actually make some converts. Republicans don’t refuse invitations to appear on Real Time With Bill Maher.

Incredible as it may seem, their handling of the Ilhan Omar affair provided Trump with the opportunity to label Democrats “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic”. By contrast with the Trump approach of “never apologize, never explain and always double down”, the Democrats looked weak and ineffective on this issue. Representative Omar, the young, Muslim House member, made some very foolish statements suggesting the dual allegiance of American Jews to the United States and Israel. Following Omar’s ambiguous retractions, she was properly reproached by many Democrats. The sequel, which ultimately led to a House resolution, so bland as to be almost meaningless, spoke of a party unable to exert control over its members. The Democrats formed a circle and fired inwards. The irony is that of the 34 Jews in Congress, 32 are Democrats and only two are Republicans.

With the United States so polarized and divided, the 2020 presidential campaign will be decided by a relatively small group of “swing” voters. In the 2018 mid-term elections, the Democrats’ success was the result of their capturing significant support in America’s suburbs. To achieve the same result in 2020, they will have to again win this battleground and, perhaps more importantly, retake the electoral votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, historically blue states which Trump won by narrow margins in 2016.

Some eighteen months away from the 2020 elections, what appear to be some of the major challenges which the Democrats face?

First, by contrast with the now monolithic Trump Republicans, there is a huge range of perspectives among the Democrats. While there are obvious advantages to having a “big tent” party, there is the inevitable danger of major fault lines being created and exploited by Republicans. “Socialism”, a word being used by some Democrats and being attached to others, is neither understood by many Americans and, more importantly, is not accepted as representing “American values”. Fairly or not, it is a club which will be used by the Republicans.

Second, while there are also advantages to having a large and diverse field of presidential candidates, this will not only lead to their inevitably attacking one another to gain advantage, but will permit Trump, in his aggressive and shameless way, to denigrate each of them for the next year. One need only think of the labels which he attached to Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Little Marco Rubio and Low-Energy Jeb Bush. The fact that at least some of these labels applied more appropriately to Trump himself did not diminish their impact.

Third, having now taken control of the House, and therefore its enormous powers of oversight of the executive, the Democrats have a delicate balancing act to manage. Already, as they have done with respect to the “witch hunt” Mueller investigation, the Republicans, led by Trump, have characterized the entire process as “presidential harassment”. They have also adopted the approach of the “big lie”, claiming that all the investigations being commenced are illegitimate as they are not based on any evidence of crimes. That, to put it mildly, is putting the cart before the horse, as the purpose of congressional oversight is to determine whether crimes were committed or other improper behavior engaged in. In fact, since the Republicans abandoned their oversight responsibilities while they controlled the House, much legitimate oversight is required. It would be disastrous for the Democrats if voters, other than those umbilically tied to Trump, began to believe the harassment claims.

Fourth, the Democrats’ presidential candidates will also have to strike a difficult balance between adopting positions which, although appearing popular, are truly “aspirational”, with no chance of success, and those which not only draw support, but are sufficiently pragmatic to have a serious possibility of becoming law.

Among these possibilities are the approaches to taxation, healthcare, climate change and the cost of university education. While a large majority of Americans believe that corporations and the rich do not pay their fair share of taxes, ideas such as the wealth tax proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren are easily attacked. On the subject of healthcare, while many Americans agree it should be a right, how to enshrine it is a political minefield. Every poll on the subject demonstrates that, while large majorities support “Medicare for all”, that support evaporates when people think their taxes will rise to pay for it. The Green New Deal on climate change has nothing to do with the art of the possible. A recent call by some Democrats for reparations to African-Americans, founded on the country’s history of slavery, is yet another Pandora’s Box, with many other groups believing they have legitimate claims and joining the queue. To these difficult policy areas may be added the cost of a university education and many others.

Finally, but not of secondary importance, the Democrats and all the presidential candidates will have to make a decision as to how they deal with Donald J. Trump. Do they tackle him head on? Do they ignore him and refuse to refer to him by name? Do they assume that his personality flaws are so well known that reference to them is unnecessary? Regardless of the approach taken, every Democrat should remember the old adage, “Don’t get into a mud fight with a pig. You will both get dirty, but the pig will love it”.

Whatever may be one’s perspective on all these matters, and whether or not one envisages the next eighteen months as equivalent to the ancient Chinese curse, there will be interesting times ahead.

Peter Blaikie is a successful attorney, business executive, opinion leader and world traveller. He has been active in politics, serving as a past president of the Federal Conservative Party. (Then the Progressive Conservative Party) 

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