In the entrance to the US Senate Members’ Dining Room, there’s an old menu from March 24, 1941. On the back, presumably to record a bet, seven senators wrote the dates when they thought their country would enter World War II. Theodore G. Bilbo, a Democrat from Mississippi, thought “never.” So did D. Worth Clark, one of the two senators from Idaho. Millard Tydings of Maryland guessed either July 14, 1941 “or 1961.” A fourth senator thought Sept. 17, 1945.
Only three of the seven predicted that the United States would be at war before the end of the year, but not one of them got the month right. (They guessed July 24, Aug. 24, or Sept. 24, whereas the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was on Dec. 7 and the German declaration of war on the United States on Dec. 11.)
Now imagine a similar exercise in March 2019. At what date will Donald J. Trump leave the office of president? If, as in 1941, the majority of your seven senators were Democrats, I would guess that at least three would predict Jan. 20, 2021 — the day the Constitution requires Trump to hand over the White House if he is defeated in the November 2020 election. But I doubt they would all say that.
Senate Democrats are under instructions not to talk about impeaching Trump, but I am sure more than a handful of them think about it. So perhaps two out of seven would go for an earlier date, perhaps some time next year. But that would leave two pessimists. The first might say Jan. 20, 2025 — acknowledging that the president they love to hate could win a second term. The most pessimistic of them all, having read all those overwrought articles from two years ago about the coming Trump tyranny, might write “never.”
One great benefit of recording such political wagers is that, years later, they can remind historians that the familiar past they study was once the uncertain future. We all know that the United States eventually joined the fight against the Axis powers. But that did not seem inevitable to many contemporaries, even in March 1941. In the same way, no one should pretend to know for sure how long the Trump presidency will last.
True, last week was not a good one for Trump. For the many liberal journalists yearning to reenact Watergate, Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday was beyond thrilling. Back in June 1973, this was the role played by John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House lawyer, who testified before Congress that the Watergate case was a “cancer growing on the presidency.”
Yet somehow Cohen’s appearance was more “Godfather” or “GoodFellas” than “All the President’s Men.” What we heard last week was a litany of low crimes and misdeeds predating the president’s inauguration, not the “high crimes and misdemeanors” in office that Article 2 of the US Constitution says are grounds for impeachment. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Fathers had in mind “offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
So long as the president’s party has the upper hand in the Senate, and so long as his approval rating does not collapse — as Nixon’s did in the course of the Watergate hearings — any move to impeach Trump is going to fail, and might even backfire on the Democrats, as impeaching Bill Clinton backfired on the Republicans back in the 1990s. Reality check: Trump’s job approval number is currently 44 percent , exactly what it was at the start of his presidency and substantially above the low (37 percent) of December 2017. By the time Nixon was forced to resign, his approval was down to 24 percent.
In any case, three things are going Trump’s way right now. First, the economy. Growth last year came in just under 3 percent and the Fed’s January decision to stop hiking interest rates should keep the show on the road into 2020.
Second, a rising proportion of voters seem to like the president’s tough line on China — which is why Trump should not prematurely strike a trade deal with Xi Jinping when the two men meet later this month. Foreign policy triumphs are politically worthless at this early stage of an election cycle; like Nixon in 1972, Trump needs to be the global dealmaker in the months when voters are making their minds up.
Finally, the leftward lurch of the Democrats continues, and with it their desire to nominate a candidate who will appeal to younger and minority voters. Try to imagine one of the current front-runners campaigning for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and student debt forgiveness, only to find the news cycle dominated by Trump’s latest Asian summit, his Middle Eastern peace plan, or the humanitarian disaster caused by socialism in Venezuela.
Watergate destroyed Nixon only after he had won one of the biggest landslides in American history. Trump’s scandals have come to light much sooner, a year and a half before he has to face the voters. What lies ahead for this most erratic of presidents? Write your guess on the back of the nearest lunch menu and file it for future reference. It will be as good as any senator’s.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.