Nearly a thousand days remain between us and Nov. 3, 2020, but President Trump is already making announcements about his next campaign.
I feel comfortable saying that he has this thing in the bag. Trump is an uncouth, mean-spirited, delusional narcissist hated by the media. So was Richard Nixon in 1972, and he won re-election that year in the biggest landslide in American history. Like Nixon's, Trump's appeal among his base is foolproof. Even the slightest accomplishment can be presented as evidence of his deal-making savvy. Every promise he has failed to keep — on health care, trade, immigration, The Wall — can be answered away by invoking the specter of his enemies. Unlike Nixon or any president in recent memory, he has the benefit of being able to count the leadership of both parties among the latter. The GOP is fine with this arrangement. Mitch McConnell really will allow Trump to badmouth him in front of the American people if it means not having a Democrat in the White House.
Meanwhile the same media that made Trump's rise possible by investing his every moronic utterance with world-historic significance is trying desperately to pose as a check on his authority. The 2016 election was the story of CNN allowing Trump to phone in his extemporized thoughts on nothing in particular while Rand Paul and Jeb Bush sat waiting in the wings with their boring white papers on criminal justice reform. Now Chris Cuomo thinks the pain the first lady no doubt experiences upon being informed of her husband's adultery is uproariously funny. The press is made up of dilettantes, and their ability to influence voters' decisions has never been more limited. At this point Trump really could shoot someone in the street, and the average MAGA hat wearer who saw it happen live on CNN would know it was #fakenews.
For Trump to lose, the Democrats will have to find an even marginally appealing candidate, preferably one at least slightly younger than Abraham at the birth of Isaac. I continue to believe that their best bet is Oprah Winfrey, but she has made it clear that she no interest in running. Bernie Sanders, who could also beat Trump, will be 80 years old in 2020. Joe Biden, who is not lacking in charisma of a kind, will be 78. Anyone who thinks that Biden's avuncular handsiness will not be an obstacle because he is running against Trump is underestimating the cynicism of the GOP.
Who else is there? The most popular Democratic governor in the country is John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, a pro-life, pro-gun throwback figure who is as repulsive to the party's committed base of 22-year-old Teen Vogue editorial interns as he might be attractive to voters in purple states. He has never hinted at wanting to run. Instead, the governor most likely to get involved is California's Jerry Brown, another octogenarian whose appeal would be as mysterious to most Americans as it indeed is to the average resident of the Golden State. Of senators likely to run, the most viable is Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
By "viable" I mean capable of winning a general election, not capturing the Democratic nomination. For the first time since 1992, the Democratic Party is going to be forced to decide what it stands for, not simply what it is against (i.e., Trump himself, his evil Russian cronies, a tax cut that is, for good or ill, becoming popular). President Obama ran as a moderate in 2008 and very largely governed as one. His administration was a continuation of the “Third Way” Dick Morris-approved triangulation that had been successful for Bill Clinton. He was friendly to Wall Street, hawkish on terrorism, reasonably tough on immigration, pliable on social issues.
Is Clintonism still the way forward, or is the next Democratic president going to be something this country has not seen since Lyndon Johnson, a genuine fighting progressive in the White House? For the powers that be in the Democratic Party, the answer is obvious. There is no reason to believe that the DNC led by Tom Perez will be any less in the tank for the party's neoliberal establishment than it was under Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who more or less openly colluded with Hillary Clinton against Sanders. The only way Gillibrand will make herself acceptable to leadership is by abandoning her (already malleable) principles. If she decides that single-payer health care is aspirational rather than imperative and that the war in Afghanistan worth fighting after all, she might be a goer. If she looks like the genuine article, she will be stonewalled in favor of, say, Terry McAuliffe, who will raise more money than any candidate in history and lose by at least 100 electoral votes. The same goes for Elizabeth Warren, whom the party finds useful so long as she is in opposition, like Sanders. Kamala Harris has a better chance of being the nominee than either of these women for precisely the same reason that she would fare worse in a general election, namely her gruesome obsession with punishing opponents of abortion. She would be acceptable to the NARAL wine-and-cheese crowd in a way that is not quite imaginable for Warren, who considers pocket-book issues more important than anything else.
A contest between a generic neoliberal and Trump would be a battle of airs and grievances, a duel for feigned moral superiority utterly divorced from practical moral and economic questions. It would be phantasmal, like the rest of our political life. Only a progressive candidate who could articulate the ways in which the Trump administration is a continuation of all the ills — the shocking accumulation of unimaginable power and wealth by a handful of large tech companies, the relentless financialization of the economy, the absence of meaningful and well-remunerated full-time work, the crippling debt, the social breakdown that has made family life a privilege for the upper-middle class — of his last three predecessors would meaningfully alter the terms of the engagement.
In a contest of images, don't bet against the reality TV star. For Trump to lose, the Democratic Party would have become the party of Rep. Rosa DeLauro. I don't think even Rosa expects that to happen.