The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 6: Trump’s Best Week Yet

This week:

  • Trump’s big week
  • Acquittal and a strong SOTU
  • Democrats can’t get it together in Iowa

Trump’s big week:

After a big win on Iran earlier this year, Trump has had a second huge week. His presidency is currently at its high point so far. It’s a good time to peak, too — just as the election year begins. Here were the highlights:

  1. Last Saturday, enough Republican senators stuck together to avoid needlessly prolonging an impeachment trial whose conclusion was already well known. 
  2. Last Sunday, President Trump began what promises to be a big campaign of outreach to black voters. As CNN’s Van Jones would later point out, Trump’s Super Bowl ad was brilliant with its focus on criminal justice reform. As with his State of the Union later in the week (more on that in a minute), Trump understands that he only needs 20 percent of the Black vote to sink Democrats’ hopes in nearly every important swing state. Just imagine if Democrats nominate Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders, who have a history of poor performances with black voters, or Michael Bloomberg, who only recently (and rather ridiculously) renounced his avid support for stop-and-frisk now that he’s running for president.
  3. Last Monday, Democrats held the Iowa caucuses. They were a disaster. A week later, the Associated Press announced it would not declare a winner because there is no credible official result. Unofficially, Sanders appears to have easily gotten the most votes (both first and second preference), but Buttigieg might have gotten more delegate equivalents. This is the number that’s most clearly in doubt, however. One consequence is that Democrats forfeited an important primetime television slot from which to counter Trump. A second is that Democrats lack a leader to challenge him. A third is that poorly performing candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang — are not bothering to drop out, meaning that more money will be wasted on these early primaries and the eventual winner might be more brutalized. And why should anyone drop out, in the absence of an official result? It could change the entire dynamic of the race. 
    The most likely outcome either way is a divisive battle between Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, who is waiting in the wings to represent the moderate wing of the party whenever Biden drops out. This works to Trump’s advantage, because Sanders is probably unelectable and a Bloomberg come-from-behind-win would be viewed as another party conspiracy to sink Sanders (more on this in below).
    Meanwhile, President Trump won 97% of the Republican caucus.
  4. Last Tuesday, Trump delivered a triumphant State of the Union address — a brilliantly written speech, but also one that he never could have delivered if not for the current economic circumstances. Trump’s best asset is his ability to point to everything that is going well. Democrats have no recourse but to quibble over minor errors. 
    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a wise sacrificial move by tearing up her copy of his speech at the end. As much as this enraged Trump’s supporters and boosted his fundraising, it also got people talking about something other than Trump’s speech — which, again, was brilliant. Delivered at a moment when Trump’s approval was already 49 percent in Gallup — an all-time high for him — it puts him in better shape for re-election than anyone could have reasonably expected. Trump wisely focused on issues (school choice) and people (one of the last living Tuskegee airmen) important to African Americans — another sign that he plans to make a huge push to wrest this solidly Democratic vote away.
  5. On Wednesday, Trump was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial. There was only one fly in the ointment here: Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, voted for the “abuse of power” article — the only Republican in either chamber of Congress to support the impeachment in any way. This means that there’s an asterisk when he refers to the impeachment as “partisan.” It’s still true on the main, and opposition to impeachment (in the House) was more bipartisan than support for it was, but it is what it is. 
    Still, Republicans put an end to a trial whose outcome had been known well in advance. Democrats had hoped for its continuation as a means of wounding Trump politically, and that’s over. Now they have to defend a failed impeachment, about which Trump will no doubt spend the next eight months boasting. The jury is out as to how this will be judged by the public, but the early returns suggest that the impeachment process has lost credibility with time. 
    Republican senators probably will not be put in great danger by their votes to acquit. Many of them made the very defensible argument that, even stipulating to Trump’s actions on Ukraine precisely as Democrat characterized them, it simply didn’t rise to the level of impeachment. It wasn’t a serious process in that sense — it was undertaken with political goals in mind and it has been put out of its misery. Moreover, no one in real life is afraid that there has been a breakdown in the rule of law — markets would have tanked, whereas in fact they spend most of the week rallying.
  6. Speaking of which, on Friday, the January jobs numbers were released. The data crushed expectations. They showed continuing strength in the labor market to go along with continued strength in the stock market. Jobs abound, workers’ wages continue to rise, and their pensions and 401(k) plans remain in good shape for now. 

The State of the Union and its success shows how, ultimately, the economy is Trump’s most important card for re-election. This is especially true if he ends up facing someone like Sanders. Why would anyone want revolutionary socialism in an era of broadly shared prosperity?

By the same token, if it doesn’t last, then Trump will be in trouble, as any president would be.

New Hampshire: And this leads us to the New Hampshire primary, in which again revolutionary Sanders and Buttigieg are expected to finish at the top — probably in that order, judging by the late polls, but don’t forget that Buttigieg surprised everyone in Iowa. 

A second expected poor performance by Biden will lead to questions of whether he can even win in South Carolina, which until recently was considered his firewall. 

With a strong finish, Buttigieg could surpass Biden as the “moderate” candidate in the race. However, he cannot truly occupy Biden’s lane. For that, blame his youth and inexperience on the one side, and his utter lack of black support on the other. Black voters actually seem quite hostile to Buttigieg, whether due to his record on police shootings or his homosexuality. Even if he supersedes Biden, Buttigieg may prove easy pickings in a battle between Sanders and Bloomberg in Super Tuesday primaries and beyond.

Senate 2020

Georgia: The entry of Rep. Doug Collins, R, into the special election jungle primary for appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s, R, seat has national Republicans fuming. They believe the decision will cost them the seat, or at least make it more difficult to hold. 

In his post-impeachment press conference, President Trump singled out both Collins and Loeffler for praise, and local media in Georgia interpreted his comments as a hint that he might intervene by appointing one of them to a position. The primary, like those held in Louisiana, will pit the top two competitors against one another, regardless of party. The primary will not be a simple conservative-versus-liberal contest, or a contest in which the NRSC will attack the upstart as conservative groups line up on the other side. The Club for Growth, which historically has backed challengers to several senators, has announced that it will be spending millions attacking Collins. Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who has pledged to spend $20 million of her own money, has to be the favorite to reach and win a runoff, at least at the outset.