Donald Trump may have lost 2018, but he still could win 2019.
In 2018, his top aides either quit or were fired, his party lost some 40 House seats in the midterm congressional elections, America’s traditional rivals felt empowered and every aspect of his life was under investigation, often by arms of the government he heads.
Still – this will comfort his base and will deflate his opponents – Donald Trump remains in the White House, unbowed, unfazed, above all uninhibited. He remains the fulcrum of every political debate, the topic of every dinner-time conversation, the preoccupation of every cocktail hour, the subject of every radio talk show, the variable in every diplomatic calculation. He may have had a rough 2018, but a new year – almost certainly wilder, more unpredictable than 2018 – beckons and, though it is full of peril for Mr. Trump, it also is packed with opportunity.
With the likelihood that the President’s actions and antics will create a new normal in Washington and in diplomatic corridors around the globe, here is a best-case scenario for a man who, for half the United States and much of the world, is the personification of the worst-case scenario:
— The Mueller investigation fizzles. Methodical, diligent, determined, yet cautious, Robert Mueller has created a splash with his investigation into possible Trump election collusion with Russia. The result will be jail time for some, wrecked reputations for others, a great sense of unease for still more in the Trump inner circle and the Trump family. But what if the special counsel calculated that an aggressive start would lure Trump confidants to the Mueller confessional but there wasn’t much more to confess? What if all the fireworks were spent at the beginning of the spectacle?
This is obviously the fondest hope of the Trump camp, but even if it doesn’t come to pass – if, for example, Mr. Mueller sends a damaging report to the Congress and perhaps to the public – Mr. Trump still can hope that:
- Congress blinks. There surely will be Capitol Hill investigations. Subpoenas will fly. Hearings will be convened. Strong talk will fill the air. The President will be chastised. But lacking the consensus of 1974 (broad agreement across party lines that the president had crossed legal lines and is unfit to remain in office) and wary of the lessons of 1998 (highly aggressive members of a House majority impeached a president of the opposite party only to see their own motives exposed and impugned and their re-election prospects endangered), Congress very likely will irritate but not impeach Mr. Trump. Either way:
- The base seethes. No matter what the Democrats in the House do – whether they plunge ahead into impeachment proceedings or merely torment Trump insiders in nationally televised star chambers – Mr. Trump’s supporters will reach the same conclusion: The Democrats, the political establishment, the mainstream press and the socialist fringe all are in a vast conspiracy to overturn the result of the 2016 election and to preserve their places of privilege in the social and political order to the detriment of the rural, the unemployed, the displaced manufacturing workers and the dispossessed. All of this emboldens the President and fortifies his position in swing states. As a result:
- Congress complies, at least a bit. The President wants an infrastructure offensive; more than the wall at the Southern border, candidate Trump spoke in 2016 about the deplorable condition of American highways, the poor state of American airports and the dangerous condition of American bridges. For its part, the Democratic House will want to put unionized employees to work building highways, repairing airports, restoring spans over rivers. This is, to strain a metaphor, a bridge between the parties. Mr. Trump can claim a big victory here and alter his profile as a partisan pugilist more interested in the fight than in the result – and the Democrats, harbouring hopes they can return to full power in Washington, can demonstrate that they can be trusted with the instruments of government and are interested in doing more than sabotaging Mr. Trump’s presidency. But keep your eye on whether:
- The globe cools (diplomatically at least). The first two years of the Trump ascendancy were tempestuous, with allies such as Canada and Europe discomfited, and established trade patterns such as NAFTA disrupted. But for the next year, the master of tumult must become the magus of tranquility. That requires the trade war with China to settle down, global financial markets to regain stability, Russia to quiet. Kim Jong-un to hold his fire and the Islamic State to remain defeated. That’s a tall order but not beyond the reach of a deft hand. Meanwhile:
- Democrats line up to take on Mr. Trump in the 2020 presidential election. This is almost a certainty, the unintended result of both the Trump and Barack Obama victories. And it could benefit Mr. Trump hugely, especially if the party fails to settle roiling questions about its identity (the vanguard of the elite or the voice of working Americans) and its profile (hewing to the centre or leaning to the left).
Mr. Obama was elected to the presidency a mere four years after serving in the Illinois state senate, a remarkable, almost inconceivable jump. But the Obama example – the notion that a relative newcomer can become president, and even may have an advantage in the primaries, where a new face will be prized – has prompted dozens of Democrats to see themselves as potential presidents. Why else would Senator Kamala Harris, who only two years ago was the attorney-general of California, plan a big book unveiling in New York and Washington early in January as predicate to a presidential campaign? Why else would Senator Cory Booker, who only five years ago was mayor of Newark, N.J., consider himself presidential timber? Why else could Beto O’Rourke, a three-term member of the House of Representatives, consider running for president when he couldn’t prevail in his Senate race in Texas in November?
The result will be a crowded field. But Mr. Trump’s example underlines how a crowded field can be a substantial advantage to a peripheral candidacy.
And yet an eventual 2020 Democratic nominee who limps into the general election after surviving a blistering fight with more than a score of other promising rising stars may not be ideally positioned to prevail against Mr. Trump, who will possess the formidable advantages of incumbency. Especially so if:
- Republican triumphs give Mr. Trump a strong tailwind going into 2020. Seldom recognized as an important factor for 2020 presidential politics is the potential effect of three southern gubernatorial elections at the end of 2019 – the only elections for governor in an otherwise quiet political year – to provide the President with a boost as he cruises toward his drive for a second term.
Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi all hold governors’ races in 2019, and their results could provide Mr. Trump, who surely will campaign in all three states, with confidence as he approaches his re-election battle. This is congenial territory for the President; he easily carried all three states in 2016.
The outlook for the Republicans in two of these states is very bright. Republican Governor Matt Bevin is running for re-election in Kentucky and is a heavy favourite to prevail. In Mississippi, two-term Republican Governor Phil Bryant is banned from seeking another term but Lieutenant-Governor Tate Reeves is well-positioned to keep Republican control of the governor’s office. The only vulnerability is in Louisiana, which Mr. Trump carried with 58 per cent two years ago but where Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards remains a favourite.
Mr. Trump – and, just as importantly, the national press – is likely to consider these gubernatorial races a dress rehearsal for his own re-election campaign. If the Republicans win two of the three, which is likely, the President will have what George Bush used to call the ‘’Big Mo’’ – big momentum. And momentum is all he will need out of 2019.
Momentum and, of course, a bit of the kind of good luck that catapulted him to the presidency in 2016. The Trump triumph that year was a bit of a miracle. But twice?