Commentary / World

Forget the Iowa fiasco — Trump is the Democrats' real problem

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Bloomberg

Democrats keep getting bad news. On Monday night, the Iowa Democratic Party bollixed its caucuses in a way that generated more ill will inside the party. On Tuesday morning, Democrats awoke to the news that U.S. President Donald Trump hit a new high in his job approval rating: He is now at 49 percent, according to Gallup. The Republican Party is more popular than it has been since 2005.

It’s just a coincidence that the Iowa meltdown happened right before Gallup released its poll numbers. But it’s a coincidence that adds to the signs that Trump is in better shape for re-election than Democrats had thought he would be.

He has a unified party. For much of the last four years, fractures among Republicans have occupied a lot of journalistic attention. Would an appreciable number of Republicans stay home in the 2016 election? Would several Republicans in Congress vote to impeach and remove Trump? No and no. As president, Trump has sided with Republican voters on the issues that large numbers of them care about — while Democrats have moved further away from their mainstream.

He faces no serious Republican challengers: Since 1930, every incumbent president who has lost re-election first faced a serious primary challenge. By governing as he has, Trump prevented one from materializing. Impeachment has solidified his base further.

He’s got a good economy behind him. Democratic candidates have spent the primary season talking the economy down. But it’s arguably the best economy any incumbent has had going for him since President Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996. The public is happy about it, and consistently gives Trump better marks on it than he gets for his overall record.

Trump has removed a vulnerability to the election-year economy. The trade wars seem to have cut into economic growth in 2019. But Trump has now hit pause on them, calling off tariff increases aimed at China and securing a deal that keeps trade in North America mostly free. There was a chance that trade conflict could lead to a market panic and an economic downturn. There isn’t anymore.

Trump’s added to his base. We sometimes forget that Mitt Romney got a higher percentage of the national vote while losing in 2012 than Trump got in 2016. Since then, it’s been conventional wisdom that the president is playing only to his most hardcore supporters. But his current 49 percent approval rating suggests he now has the support of some people who didn’t vote for him last time. Because the economy has done well, because he has governed the way Republican voters wanted him to, or because of the sheer fact that he is an incumbent, he has brought into his camp some people who voted for third parties of the right or stayed home in 2016.

The Democratic primaries run the risk of hurting the party. While Republicans are unified, Democrats have just started voting for a presidential nominee with no clear front-runner. The party’s rules make it possible that nobody will emerge as the nominee until late in the process — and maybe not until the party’s convention. Worse, the closest thing to a front-runner at the moment is a self-described “democratic socialist.” Socialism has never been popular, and it may be a particularly poor fit for an electorate that is enjoying a good economy.

In November 2016, Trump famously pulled an inside straight — winning three states and thus the presidency by fewer than 78,000 votes. Just this week I saw someone on cable news asking if he could do it again in 2020. It should be beginning to dawn on Democrats that he might not need to.

Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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