It will certainly not be for his magnanimity or contrition that President Trump will be remembered by future historians of the Republic’s decline and fall. No sooner had he been acquitted by the Senate of the charges brought against him by the House of Representatives than Trump let rip against all those he held responsible for his impeachment.
“It was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers, it was liars,” the president said on Thursday morning at what he called a “celebration” of his acquittal. James Comey, the former FBI director Trump fired, had been “a disaster.” Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election was “all bullshit.” Adam Schiff, the Democrat who managed the impeachment process, was “a vicious, horrible person.” Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, was also “horrible.” Mitt Romney — the only Republican senator to find Trump guilty in last week’s votes — was “a failed presidential candidate.” Those present, including leading Republican legislators, cheered this rant to the rafters.
I dwell on these details because they are characteristic of the atmosphere in Washington nowadays. According to CBS News, Republican senators had been warned: “Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.” Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator from Ohio, claimed in The New York Times that “in private, Republicans admit they acquitted Trump out of fear.” I have a different theory. I believe they acquitted him because they see his reelection as all but certain.
Richard Nixon was forced to resign before it even came to impeachment because polling made clear to the Republican leadership in Congress that he was irreparably damaged in the eyes of voters. In any case, Nixon was already in his second term. The Democrats should have saved impeachment for next year.
Trump is currently on track for a second term. Those economists who have spent the last three years predicting a recession — dubbed the “Armageddonists” by J.P. Morgan — look foolish. According to Gallup, 63 percent of Americans now approve of the way Trump is handling the economy — the highest economic approval for any president since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Among Republicans, Trump has a stratospheric 94 percent approval rating. With Independents, he is at 42 percent.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, the president’s political rivals made the biggest possible mess of the first of the steps they must take to select a candidate to run against him in November. Caucuses are an archaic procedure, but there is nothing wrong with that. The fatal mistake was to introduce smartphone apps into the process. If you’re going to do things the old-fashioned way, stick with paper and pencil.
What has Iowa told us, apart from the fact that, despite all those millions of dollars of donations from Silicon Valley, the Democratic Party still sucks at technology? First, Bernie Sanders is the real front-runner, not Joe Biden, whose campaign is in disarray (the fate that usually befalls early Democratic front-runners). Second, if there is to be a dark horse in this race it will be Pete Buttigieg, the youthful, brainy, and gay former mayor of South Bend, Ind. Third, not being involved in Iowa or the other early races may not significantly dent the strategy of Mike Bloomberg to spend his way to the nomination.
Perhaps most important, Iowa reminded us how easily close races in American politics can descend into farce and acrimony.
I emphasize this because the eventual Democratic nominee will have — contrary to the conventional wisdom that currently prevails in Davos, Aspen, Manhattan, and Silicon Valley — at least some chance of beating Trump.
Three of the last five US general elections (2000, 2004, and 2016) have been close — decided by very narrow margins in the Electoral College. If (as seems likely) Trump holds on to the Sun Belt, then this year’s election will once again hinge on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Here’s Trump’s problem. In these key swing states, between 44 and 49 percent of 2018 midterm voters named health care as their top issue. Three-quarters of those who did so voted for the Democrats. This isn’t so surprising when you discover that, since January 2017, the inflation-adjusted increase in employee contributions to family health insurance plans has been 24 percent in Michigan and 30 percent in Wisconsin.
On this issue, Republicans have no good story to tell. They failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. Now they are held responsible for its “implosion” — Trump’s ill-chosen word back in 2017. Four years ago, voters blamed Democrats for problems with Obamacare by 66 percent to 23 percent. Today, 61 percent blame Republicans; just 32 percent Democrats.
So yes, the economy has been strong under Trump (though it has not added more jobs than it did in Obama’s last three years). True, no postwar president has lost reelection with unemployment below 7 percent. And I agree: Real median household wages are up — by $2,228 in 2019. But higher health insurance premiums ate a third of that gain, and the costs to consumers of the trade war another third.
Even in just four years, those three key states have seen demographic changes that are bad for Republicans, shaving the number of white voters without a college degree by about two percentage points.
So it will be close. Even if Democrats nominate Sanders, it will be close.
Would a Democratic win halt the Republic’s seemingly inexorable Roman-style slide toward empire? I would doubt it — especially if the general election result is as close as that of 2000. Imagine Iowa writ large. Imagine Buttigieg again claiming victory before the results are in. Imagine Trump’s reaction. Imagine his party’s reaction.
Imagine mayhem — the invariable prelude to empire.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.