Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

It’s not just Virginia that sent a message to Trump

New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy speaks to supporters during his election night victory party on Nov. 7, in Asbury Park, N.J.
Associated Press/Julio Cortez
New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy speaks to supporters during his election night victory party on Nov. 7, in Asbury Park, N.J.

This has been a week to remind everyone of just how fast things change in today’s politics — and one to leave observers hopeful that voters want to move beyond the bitterness and belligerence of the Trump era.

Yet that doesn’t automatically mean happy days are here again for the Democrats. Not with the Democratic Party suffering its worst favorable/unfavorable rating — 37 percent to 54 percent — in a quarter century in a new CNN poll, a rating whose only relative bright spot is that it’s better than the 30/61 rating for the Republican Party.

Those numbers add an important interpretive twist to the Democrats’ strong gains in Virginia: It’s best read as a determined step away from Trump rather than a headlong rush into the opposition party’s arms.

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Which is not, of course, the way the nation’s solipsistic CEO sees things. His face-saving explanation: Ed Gillespie, the Virginia GOP’s gubernatorial candidate, lost because he didn’t make his campaign enough about Trump. That uniquely egotistical take flies in the face of exit-poll-based analyses from the reality-based world, which see Democrat Ralph Northam’s strong victory over Gillespie as a referendum on, and rejection of, Trumpian politics.

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Indeed, the same CNN poll shows that Americans now recognize Trump for what he is. One year after his election, 64 percent say the president isn’t honest or trustworthy, virtually the same percentage who said the same in a late-October Fox News survey. Fully 63 percent say he doesn’t deserve reelection. Americans also recognize the way the country’s reputation has suffered internationally: Only a quarter of voters believe foreign leaders respect Trump.

It’s not just Virginia that holds a message for Trump; New Jersey provides an object lesson about the fading arc of an abrasive blowhard. After his 2009 victory in usually blue New Jersey, Chris Christie was considered the hot new property in Republican politics. His blunt, confrontational-bordering-on-bullying style was considered refreshing, so much so that some self-styled Republican kingmakers beseeched Christie to jump into the 2012 presidential race.

Christie demurred back then, but he did run in 2016. Unfortunately for him, he was Trumped by an even bigger blusterer, who sucked up all the oxygen for that type of candidacy. And now, four years after being considered a top-tier presidential contender, Christie is on his way out the gubernatorial door, his favorability lower than a snake’s belly, his departure lamented by hardly anyone. With 8 in 10 voters disapproving of him, he was a distinct drag on Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who was trying to succeed him.

In Maine, meanwhile, combative Republican Paul Le-
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, who boasts that he was Trump-like before Trump emerged on the scene, got a huge comeuppance from Pine Tree State voters: They approved a ballot question to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. His Royal LePageness, who has repeatedly vetoed legislatively passed Medicaid expansion, has vowed to resist the voters’ directive.

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With Trump, Republicans now find themselves with the same problem the ancient mariner did with a certain albatross that came his way. But add this complication: Trump is popular with GOP primary voters. That leaves Republicans with this dilemma: Distancing themselves from the president might bring a primary challenge, particularly with Frankenstein’s monster Steve Bannon out recruiting pro-Trump GOP candidates. But embracing Trump could prove deadly in the general election.

The Democrats’ problem is less apparent now, but will become more so as time goes on. Although they are united in their loathing of Trump, unity in opposition shouldn’t be mistaken for a broader issues or governing consensus. Not with the simmering civil war between the Clinton and Sanders wings of the party — troubled waters former interim DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile is busy roiling.

Still, for those dismayed by the bitterness and belligerence of today’s politics, this week provides the first solid suggestion that we may have reached a turning point.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.