Hey, you can loathe Donald Trump with all the mad passion in your soul, but you have to give him this: he inspired the largest mid-term voter turn-out in fifty years. Even as he attempts to destroy our democracy, he single-handedly motivated millions to exercise its defining and inalienable right. No doubt millenniels in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and many congressional districts are tasting first-hand just how critical their one vote can really be.
And while we are in the generous frame of mind, let’s also acknowledge that Trump has faster spin cycles than a Miele washing machine. Roughly eight hours after the 218th victory was called by CNN securing a Democratic majority in the House, Trump was bellicosing up to the bar in a hostile White House press conference, implausibly declaring victory while depositing blame for defeats on the fake news media and the unfaithful Republicans who rejected his tender embrace. A scant three hours later he cut off the oxygen to the Democratic celebration by firing Jeff Sessions, thereby creating an ominous threat to the Mueller investigation, and ushering in the cloud of Constitutional crisis over Washington. Trump proceeded to add yet one more toady to the growing cast of Sycophantasy Island, bypassing the Justice Department chain of command to name one egregiously underqualified and aggressively up-sucking Matt Whitaker as Acting Attorney General.
By the time the cable news anchors went on air with their prime time Wednesday coverage, the alleged most important mid-term election in history was already ancient history. The pundit class was eager to jump with Trump onto the fresh meat of the next big story. The narrative that will hurl us careening forward took shape: will Donald Trump be able to use the lax constraints of the holiday recess to clobber the Mueller investigation before it can bring him down?
We will certainly spend time in our columns chasing this story, but before the mid-term election fades in the rear-view mirror, it is important for progressives to sober up and pause for one of those George Santayana moments. Should we choose to study the history, there are two very significant observations to be made as we turn and officially focus on 2020.
First, the bad news: progressives need to know that the Americans tend to re-elect their incumbent President by an overwhelming degree. There are significant reasons why… which all seemed aligned to benefit Trump as we head toward 2020. Moreover, we cannot and should not assume that this blue wave generated momentum that will in any way carry into 2020. In sum, Donald Trump may be in a far stronger position going into 2020 than we realize. Let’s examine this through the lens of history.
There have been 26 mid-term elections since 1918. Only three times in that entire period (FDR’s first term, Clinton’s second, and George Dubya’s first) has the President’s party picked up seats in the House. All twenty-three other mid-term elections were losses for the President’s party – just like what happened to Trump in these mid-terms. If you think Trump’s 35 to 40 seat loss is bad, consider that FDR himself lost 72 seats in 1938… and yet won re-election for an unprecedented third term in 1940. But with the relentless overall pattern of mid-term losses, you’d think that the voting population is consistently dissatisfied with the performance of the President. Naturally, you would conclude, that the electorate was eager to oust the President in the next election.
Over the past 72 years, there has been a pattern that leads one to the exact opposite conclusion. Americans almost never fail to re-elect an incumbent president.
What has happened since World War II is extraordinary in its consistency. Presidents (and their political parties) retain the White House for pretty much exactly eight years, and then are finally ushered out of power, not necessarily because voters are disenchanted with the President, but because of term limits require that the party in power offer up a new candidate.
Eight years in, eight years out. Rinse, repeat, for three quarters of a century. Incumbency breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds inertia. Americans seem to be comfortable with the devil they know.
Since 1952, there have been only two exceptions to this pattern: Jimmy Carter’s single term in 1976, and the Republican run of 12 years from 1980 to 1992, which was the only instance in this span when a party retained the presidency after an eight year term had ended. George Bush the Elder enabled Republicans to defy all odds and retain the White House even after eight years of Reagan… though Bush himself would be the second exception to the rule, serving just one term and losing his bid for re-election in 1992.
Aside from those two exceptions, the party in power has held fast for their eight year turn at the wheel. In a 72 year period that contained a maximum of nine possible eight-year single-party terms, it happened seven times. The eight year pattern held even when Presidents vacated the office… when Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy, and when Ford completed Nixon’s second term.
Why is it that Presidents are so consistently punished in the mid-terms but so regularly rewarded with re-election?
Some new presidents are bruised in their first mid-term because they try to do too much too fast. Some try to ram signature legislation through, and stub their toes or alienate people along the way. Some make dumb mistakes. Almost all seem shiny and wonderful on inauguration day, but are quickly brought back to earth by the complexities of the job. A combination of over-reach, under-delivery, and being revealed to be merely human leave them vulnerable for a stiff rebuke in their first mid-term.
Some don’t recover. Those two one-term Presidents -- Jimmy Carter and the elder George Bush -- both suffered from perceived weakness in the face of economic adversity. Bush broke his vow of “no new taxes” when the economy tanked. Carter was damaged by his weak handling of an array of issues (the energy crisis, and the Iran hostages), but, most pointedly, by rampant “stagflation” – low GDP growth coupled with double-digit inflation. In the end, it was the economy that sealed the fate of these two one-term presidents. Indeed, it was during the 1992 campaign that Clinton advisor James Carville uttered the legendary mantra of single-minded political messaging: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
It’s harder to explain why, after absorbing rejection in the mid-terms, the rest of the presidents in this time frame rebounded and were re-elected two years later. Some are simply savvy operators who figure out how the Washington game is played and recover their mojo. Some have greatness – or perhaps simply increased stature – thrust upon them, as happened when George Dubya Bush became the voice of a united nation in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Bill Clinton benefited from the rise of the internet that led to stupendous growth in the technology sector and the overall economy. Indeed, during that 72 year period, the quality of life in the United States generally improved. Rising tides raise all boats, and rising boats make it seem like presidents are doing a good job. Finally (with the current occupant of the White House a notable exception), most presidents seem to grow in stature as they become more comfortable in the role. We see them handling the job, and accord them increased respect as they rise to the office.
Could it be more than steep learning curves and savvy political instincts that enable presidents to overcome negative mid-term results and win re-election? We suspect Americans are actually averse to change in the White House. If certain boxes are checked -- no wars, a sound economy, and a President who appears confident and in command – Americans want to hold the course.
All of which is to say that Democrats, liberals, and progressives need to look ahead with a clear view of the future… starting with the realization that the results of these mid-terms mean very little on the broader issue of whether Donald Trump is going to get re-elected in 2020.
If anyone is taking comfort that Donald Trump is wounded and therefore badly damaged going into the 2020 Presidential campaign season, think again.
For starters, he has enormous wind at his back from two simple facts: the economy is roaring, and the country is not neck-deep in a wildly unpopular war. Those two facts alone are huge.
Some liberals are hoping that the Mueller investigation report will trigger an impeachment process that will result in Trump being removed before the next Presidential election. Can we get real and take this one completely off the table now? If Republicans have not abandoned Trump after the past two years, do you really think that anything Robert Mueller says is actually going to change their mind? For the longest time, we believed that if Robert Mueller found a smoking gun proving that Trump was fully aware of collusion between his campaign and Russia that Republican Senators would finally break ranks and go along with impeachment. Now, with McCain dead and Lindsay Graham on his knees before Trump, it appears certain that at least 34 Republican Senators will pretend that any Mueller evidence was forged or faked. Republican Senators will literally allow Trump to get away with treason to save their own hides.
Indeed, at this point, most savvy Democrats point out that a failed impeachment effort would only make Trump exponentially more powerful: he would erroneously characterize the failure of the Senate to convict him as proof of his innocence, and he would claim vindication for labeling the investigation a witch hunt.
A strong economy, no wars, and the “failure” of Mueller and the media to “prove collusion” will lead to a resurgent Trump in 2020. Having muscled out the Flakes and Corkers, he will have virtually every Republican leader under this thumb, so there will be no opposition from within his party. Sean Hannity and the team at Pravda will continue to sing his praises to the base. Trump will blame Republican arch-villain Nancy Pelosi for his every failure. Who knows? Maybe his approval rating creeps upward, approaching the territory that makes re-election plausible. The final ingredient in this scary soup: the simple fact that Americans have an overwhelming tendency to re-elect and incumbent. It is time to start worrying. Now.
Ok, so where is that good news we promised?
Sure... worry, yes; but panic -- certainly not. Trump will continue to be Trump for two more years, and we can only imagine how he will manage to be even more disgraceful than his rants about shit-hole countries, blame on “both sides,” and invading caravans. Can he stoop even lower than his current record of xenophobic, racist, misogynist, ignorant, and divisive tweets? This much we can pretty much promise: he will be even worse. He will continually need to up the ante of his venom to keep his base seething with the anger and bitterness that binds them to Trump.
And while the Mueller inquiry may be muzzled and never allowed to reach its full trajectory toward impeachment, the Democratic House now has subpoena and investigative power. Some wise observers contend that a constant drip drip drip of public testimony and stunning revelations – about Trump’s taxes, his blatant disregard for the emoluments clause, the sleezy dealings of Trump’s business, and so much more – will have a far more corrosive effect on Trump’s reputation than the public circus of a highly partisan impeachment trial.
But here is the really good news.
Tuesday of last week, the Democratic Party put on a ferocious “get out the vote” effort that – more than anything else – powered the blue wave.
Think about it for a moment. We’ve been talking for a long time now about the fact that the United States of America is radically polarized. About the fact that it seems everyone has already made up their mind. About the fact that Trump actually could “shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote.”
The issue is no longer about changing anyone’s mind. Sad but true: minds poisoned by Donald Trump and validated by Sean Hannity will never be changed.
The game has changed. Now, it is simply counting how many minds have been made up on the Red team vs. the Blue team. It is no longer a question of who can persuade the most people of their message. It is who can get the most people who already agree with them to actually vote. That is the logical conclusion of radical polarization.
After the election, a friend of our blog who worked hard on GOTV efforts in a formerly red and newly blue California district reminded us of one, simple, and wonderful fact:
At the end of the day, there are more of us than there are of them.
We won the elections of 2008 and 2012. We won the popular vote in 2000 and 2016. And in aggregate in the the 2018 mid-terms, we won the vote by a margin of 52% to 45%.
If they get out 100% of their vote, and we get out 100% of ours, we win. It is now more clear than ever. Every single vote is sacred. Every vote counts.
In 2018, the game may have finally changed from James Carville’s famous “it’s the economy, stupid,” to a new mantra that we must etch into every left-leaning soul in America. “It’s the get out the vote, stupid.”
Yes, thank you to everyone who did anything to help this blue wave happen. Thank you to everyone who donated money, attended fundraisers, and who volunteered their expertise.
But there is a special place in Democratic heaven awaiting all of you who did the work on the ground in those final days leading up to election. In the end, it was the people who spent those last few days placing phone calls to registered Democrats, who drove voters to the polls, and who did everything possible to convert a potential voter into a real voter. You won the game on the ground.
Take that victory lap. Take a moment to joyfully celebrate the victories of Mikey Sherrill, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and all the amazing women who will take their places in Congress. Savor the ascent of Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, and Stacey Abrams, who join a powerful field of young leaders like Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Chris Murphy to give the Democratic Party vastly more rising stars than the Republicans.
Take the moment to realize that your work did matter, you did make a difference, and that on Tuesday, we took a vital part of our government away from a cruel man who would crush every facet of our rule of law in order to keep himself out of jail.
Perhaps most important of all, remember this. When 2020 comes, we know what we have to do. Yes, we must vote, yes we must donate money, and yes we must actively and openly advocate for the future of this country.
But skip ahead on your electronic calendar, and put a big yellow circle around Saturday, October 31 through Tuesday, November 3. Don’t schedule any Zumba classes, book group meetings, or Karaoke parties for any of those days.
You know where you need to be.
There are more of us than there are of them. But that doesn’t mean a thing unless all of us vote.
James Carville, the times they are a’ changing. The new mantra is this: "Get out the vote, stupid."
We can get this country back on the right track. There are more of us than there are of them.
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