Column: Thank his opponents
President Trump ends 2019 in a better position than when he started. The year began with the swearing in of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. The Mueller probe dragged on. The legislative agenda of Trump’s first two years in office had petered out. The Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden, was beating him by double digits in the polls. A little more than halfway through the year, bond prices signaled recession.
Look where things stand now. Pelosi’s decision to impeach Trump already has cost her a seat and stands zero chance of resulting in a Senate conviction. Not only has Mueller shuffled off the stage, but Michael Horowitz’s report on FBI malfeasance also raises serious doubts about the credibility of the government and media elites who spent years arguing that Trump and his associates were Russian agents. Mitch McConnell blocks liberal bills from the House while confirming additional conservative judges. Biden is damaged and the problems of his candidacy manifest as he sleepwalks toward his party’s nomination. The economy is gangbusters.
Nothing the Democratic majority has done has hurt Trump’s approval rating. At this time last year, he stood at 42 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. As I write, the RCP average of Trump’s approval rating is 45 percent and disapproval is 52 percent. Trump’s numbers are remarkably stable and closely track President Obama’s at this point in his presidency. Biden began the year with big leads over Trump. Since then his margin has dwindled to 4 percent. And that’s before Trump drops $1 billion in negative social media on him (or whoever the nominee is) next year.
Of course, Trump cannot say that he has been consistently popular. The opposite is true. And a 4-point victory for Biden still would be a victory—though not necessarily under the rules of the Electoral College. What Trump can say is that efforts to remove him from office have failed, or are about to fail, and have not prevented him from delivering the disruptive change that his supporters desire. Trump’s destiny is not to be a broadly popular president, if that is even possible anymore. He has been a consequential president. And may well be a reelected one.
Trump’s opponents have contributed to his success ever since he became the focal point of our national life in 2015. He fashioned himself into a political bulldozer and rolled over decades-old dynasties, demolished Republican shibboleths, ground into dust codes of presidential behavior, and plowed through entrenched obstacles to conservative policymaking in the bureaucracy and courts. Throughout it all, he has benefited from the contrast between his policies and results on one hand and the possibility of the “bold, structural change” desired by woke Democrats on the other. He also has made the most of his adversaries’ weaknesses: not just the character traits he turns into nicknames but the zealotry that manifests itself in overreach and radicalism.
The hinge point of Trump’s good year was Friday, March 22, when the Justice Department acknowledged receipt of the Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Two days later, Attorney General William Barr released his summary of the report’s contents. The full report was made available to the public on April 18. It was clear by then that despite all of the time, energy, resources, and indictments and convictions, Mueller had not uncovered a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia and was not willing to assert that the president obstructed justice. Mueller’s testimony before Congress on July 24 was a flop. The Russia investigation that had begun in the summer of 2016 and consumed the media since it was made public the following year ended in a whimper.
It was shortly after Mueller’s appearance on Capitol Hill that Trump had his “perfect” call with President Zelensky of Ukraine. The whistleblower complaint that was filed with the intelligence community inspector general afterward, and made public on September 26, set into motion the president’s impeachment, culminating in Wednesday’s House vote. No president wants to be impeached, and no president ought to be impeached in the absence of compelling and damning evidence, but there is an argument to be made that in some ways impeachment has benefited Trump.
For one thing, impeachment has focused Trump’s attention. In between the end of the Mueller investigation and the beginning of the impeachment inquiry, President Trump engaged in a series of incendiary battles with left-wing Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and the late Elijah Cummings. While Ocasio-Cortez and Omar are unpopular, the controversies nevertheless stirred up issues of race and gender that make suburbanites extremely uncomfortable.
Absent impeachment, these last few months might have been spent in endless social media flame wars with celebrities, progressives, wayward Republicans, and whoever else wandered into the crossfire. Instead, President Trump and the GOP have been “on message” against the whistleblower, Adam Schiff, and Nancy Pelosi to a degree that is nothing short of remarkable. Think about what they might accomplish if Republicans were similarly focused on the state of the economy.
Impeachment crowded out all else. This made freshmen Democrats from districts Trump won in 2016 anxious. Pelosi had to give them something in return for impeachment that they could take back to their districts. That something was the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement—which just happens to be a top priority of the president’s. At the end of this process, Trump will have kept his job through at least January 2021 and pocketed a significant diplomatic accomplishment and campaign promise. No small feat.
Impeachment also distracted from the Democratic primary. There are six weeks until the Iowa caucuses and hardly anybody besides the candidates and their immediate families seem to care. The Ukraine scandal involves the Democratic frontrunner but in an unusual way. Trump’s desire that President Zelensky look into the energy company Burisma, where Hunter Biden sat on the board, confirmed Joe Biden’s status as the preeminent threat to Trump. But it also reminded people that over the years members of the Biden family have benefited from Joe’s high office. And Biden’s clumsy response to allegations of unseemly profit-seeking was another reminder of his weaknesses as a candidate. This flawed frontrunner, already defined by his son’s influence peddling, maintains his lead in the polls because Democratic primary voters see his 14 rivals as too radical or unelectable.
President Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago impeached but defiant, with a new NAFTA and a “Phase One” China deal, Space Force, 185 federal judges, the lowest unemployment in half a century, a stock market that has increased by 50 percent since Election Day 2016, a unified party, and an opposition barreling toward a confusing and bruising primary. Trump won 2019, but this is the preseason. The real game begins in 2020.