Trump’s Latest Political And Legal Setbacks Don’t Bode Well For 2020
Looking ahead, the political landscape does not look well for the President.
With the political smoke from the government shutdown and the increasingly perilous Russia investigation imploding on him over the past week, President Trump’s political advisers are increasingly worried about his prospects for 2020:
President Trump’s defeat in his border-wall standoff with Congress has clouded his already perilous path to a second term in 2020, undercutting Mr. Trump’s cherished image as a forceful leader and deft negotiator, and emboldening alike his Democratic challengers and Republican dissenters who hope to block his re-election.
The longest government shutdown in history inflicted severe political damage on the president, dragging down his poll numbers even among Republicans and stirring concern among party leaders about his ability to navigate the next two years of divided government. Mr. Trump, close associates acknowledge, appears without a plan for mounting a strong campaign in 2020, or for persuading the majority of Americans who view him negatively to give him another chance.
Compounding the harm to Mr. Trump on Friday was the indictment of Roger Stone, his political adviser for several decades, on charges of lying to investigators and obstructing the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The indictment was taken by some Republicans as the surest sign yet that Mr. Mueller’s investigation is likely to grow more painful to Mr. Trump and his associates before it wraps up.
Mr. Trump still commands the loyalty of a passionate electoral base that has rallied to him in trying moments, and advisers believe he will have room to right himself while Democratic presidential candidates are mired in a long nomination fight. Yet they are also growing anxious that he could face a draining primary of his own next year.
Several prominent Trump antagonists are actively urging other Republicans to take on the president, and a popular governor, Larry Hogan of Maryland, has indicated he is newly open to their entreaties.
In a sign of the White House’s determination to project party unity, a top Trump campaign official, Bill Stepien, traveled to the Republican National Committee meeting in New Mexico this week to orchestrate an ornamental resolution of support for the president. It passed unanimously on Friday afternoon, hailing Mr. Trump for his “effective presidency” even as his shutdown strategy collapsed.
David Winston, a Republican pollster, said the burden was now on Mr. Trump to restore his stature as a leader by forging some kind of border-security deal with Democrats, and to deliver a stronger message on the economy.
“Leadership means results,” Mr. Winston said. “When you have a shutdown, people look at it, basically, as: the political system has failed.”
For now, Mr. Trump remains wholly focused on appeasing his conservative base, comprising perhaps a third of the electorate, despite private G.O.P. polling suggesting that his agenda on immigration has failed to move the country in his favor, Republicans who work closely with the president said.
But Mr. Trump emerged from the shutdown with nothing to show for it, having angered swing voters with his intransigence, while disappointing hard-line supporters by failing to secure any funding for a border wall.
Conservatives still believe that Mr. Trump cannot afford to abandon his crusade for a barrier. Not long before Mr. Trump agreed to reopen the government, Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a White House ally who leads the hard-line Freedom Caucus, argued that the wall fight was vital to the president’s re-election hopes.
“It’s not lost on any of us that a central component of what he said when he ran in 2016 has to be addressed in a meaningful way,” he said in a recent interview.
Privately, some of Mr. Trump’s 2016 aides have said they are pessimistic about his path to 270 electoral votes after his party’s midterm defeats in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. An Associated Press poll on Wednesday showed that Mr. Trump’s overall approval rating had fallen to 34 percent, with his support among Republicans dipping below 80 percent — a startling turn for a president who strives for total control of the G.O.P., and has usually achieved it.
The Mueller investigation looms as another destabilizing force for the president. David Kochel, a Republican strategist based in Iowa who is opposed to Mr. Trump, said the special counsel’s eventual report could determine whether Mr. Trump is vulnerable in a primary.
“That will be a focusing mechanism for the party,” Mr. Kochel said.
While core Republican voters remain loyal to him and he is not currently facing a contest for the nomination, Mr. Trump’s low standing with political moderates and especially women is leading some G.O.P. officeholders to voice unease about having him at the top of the ticket next year.
“I think it’s healthy and appropriate for the party to consider in 2020 whether this is really the path it wants to continue taking,” said David F. Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, where a Democrat won a stunning House upset last year thanks in part to the suburban antipathy toward Mr. Trump.
As a general rule, the political odds favor incumbent Presidents in their re-election bids. This has been especially true in the post World War Two era, which has seen only three incumbents Presidents lose their re-election battles, with one of those being Gerald Ford, who had not previously stood for election as either President or even Vice-President. Of the 10 elections involving incumbent Presidents over that time period, seven have won re-election. This includes the period from 1992 through 2017 during which three incumbents were re-elected, a streak that we’ve only seen once before in American history when Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were all re-elected during the period from 1800 through 1820. Additionally, as I noted earlier this week, primary challenges in the modern era have proven to be unsuccessful, although they have managed to bruise incumbents in some cases, specifically in the cases of Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Taking that into account, along with the fact that, notwithstanding his continuously perilous job approval numbers, Trump’s base remains stunningly loyal to him it’s still far too early to count the President out in 2020.
All that being said, there are a tremendous number of reasons why the President seems to be clearly headed into the 2020 fight facing tremendous risks. At the top of that list are the same approval numbers that show that his base of support has been more or less stable since the start of his Administration. As I’ve noted before, these numbers also show that this President, unlike any other since the end of World War Two, has never seen his job approval numbers go above, or even approach 50%. The close he’s come in the RealClearPolitics average has been at the start of his Administration and for a brief period this past summer when his numbers approached but did not exceed, 44%. While this is better than his low point and isn’t that far away from the 46.1% of the vote he got in the 2016 election, it’s most likely not going to be enough to win in 2020. Add into all of this the probability that future political and legal developments are likely to weigh heavily against the President, and it seems clear that he has plenty to worry about.