A lot of the analysis of the first round of Democratic presidential debates last week focused on the possible fodder the candidates and the subjects they debated might offer to the sinister general election opponent awaiting the eventual nominee in 2020. Here’s Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik, after observing some of the more controversial positions many of the debaters embraced:
The next election may be similar to the last couple of elections featuring incumbent presidents: 2004 and 2012. The incumbents those years, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wanted the election to be a choice between them or their challengers; the challengers, John Kerry and Mitt Romney, respectively, wanted the election to be a referendum on the incumbent. Bush and Obama found enough cracks in their opponents that they avoided the kind of straight referendum that could have doomed either. Trump is clearly trying to make this election a choice, too; if it’s a referendum on him, he probably won’t win, given his middling approval ratings. It may be that the policies some of the Democrats support give Trump weapons to use as he tries to present the election as a choice.
And here’s Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter:
In a post-debate panel I moderated here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp made the case that to win re-election, Trump needs to make 2020 a choice election, not a referendum. And, every Democrat gave him the opening for making that contrast. He will attack the eventual nominee as weak on border security, in favor of giving away ‘free’ stuff to people here illegally. Additionally, in the case of Sen. Sanders, Warren, and Harris, supportive of taking away American’s ability to carry private insurance.
Going forward, it will be important to watch how the Democrats answer the attacks and defend their positions. And to see how effectively Republicans will be at getting these attacks to stick. Can Republicans set the narrative about Democrats before the eventual nominee is able to do that him/herself?
This all makes good sense. But then again, we all understand that Donald J. Trump is not a president like either of the immediate predecessors that Sabato and Kondik cited. Whatever else you think of them, Bush and Obama were (1) men with egos reasonably well under control, all things considered, and (2) politicians used to following the consensus opinions of their advisers. Trump would probably score near the bottom of U.S. presidents and perhaps U.S. human beings in these and other indicators of modesty.
Can Trump really stand aside and let surrogates and paid advertising focus the 2020 election on undermining his opponent? There’s already been considerable discussion of his inability to focus on his greatest asset, the strong (for the moment) performance of the U.S. economy, as opposed to whatever gratuitous insults or cultural pathologies he is promoting on any given day. How likely is it, then, that he can agree to stay out of his own campaign’s way by allowing smears and slurs of his Democratic opponent be delivered by someone other than his exceptionally polarizing self?
It may be that Trump won the presidency in 2016, in large part, by making Hillary Clinton more unpopular than he was. But aside from the fact that he actually lost the popular vote, circumstances were very different: He wasn’t the president of the United States or the leader of the party of the president of the United States. Any negative referendum effect helped rather than hurt him; he won’t have the same presumption of not being the problem in 2020, particularly after years of daily public exposure to his depressing and tedious act. Perhaps a Joe Biden or a Bernie Sanders might have enough accumulated baggage to be included in the same discussion as Hillary Clinton in terms of unique vulnerability to demonization. But HRC was really set up as a punching bag by decades of incessant conservative and media contempt, and billions of dollars of investments in making her a figure rivaling Trump himself in unpopularity. And the odds are probably about even that someone other than these familiar political warhorses will win the Democratic nomination anyway.
For better and (mostly) worse, we are living in the Trump era, a period in which political life is dominated by one very strange and offensive man (even his fans love him for his offensiveness, precisely because of the effect he has on their own enemies) who probably can’t take the spotlight off himself even if he wanted to, which he manifestly does not. Yes, his campaign and allied media can create and cultivate doubts about the Democratic nominee in 2020. But it’s unlikely swing voters, such as they are, will be able to go to the polls in the general election with their thoughts centered on anyone other than the outlandish figure who lives in the White House today. And no matter what makes sense politically, that’s probably how he likes it.