Few State of the Union addresses have occurred at a moment such as this one.
Democrats’ impeachment calculus always seemed perilously pyrrhic, possibly never more so than on the eve of President Trump’s expected acquittal in the Senate and after the botched reporting of Iowa caucus results, which could short-circuit a post-caucus bounce for any of his 2020 Democratic rivals.
Even if the Republican-majority Senate would never vote to oust him, Democrats wanted to force Trump to bear the “impeached” label while running for re-election, but at what cost?
The notion of basing Trump’s impeachment on his alleged attempts to push Ukraine’s leader to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden’s questionable roles there always carried the risk that it could hurt the 2020 Democratic front-runner worst of all.
And it really doesn’t matter whether it was the corruption questions about Ukraine or Biden’s repeated debate bumbling or some combination thereof that caused the former vice president’s numbers to sink in Iowa and New Hampshire. Critics will claim it was impeachment as Biden lost ground to rival Bernie Sanders even as Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar remained stuck in the Senate as trial jurors.
With the Iowa caucuses snarled in a reporting results fiasco Monday night, the Trump campaign quickly seized on the chaos as exhibit A of why Democrats can’t be trusted on many of their candidates’ plans to change the nation’s economic system and institute government-run health care.
“Democrats are stewing in a caucus mess of their own creation with the sloppiest train wreck in history,” Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale said in a statement Monday night. “…And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?
Unofficial late-Monday field reports showed Biden struggling and Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg surging. Biden is in even greater danger in New Hampshire where Sanders is besting the former vice president by nine percentage points with less than a week to go, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of polls.
The lack of a clear winner as of Tuesday morning is fueling new talk of Democrats taking billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s upstart campaign more seriously as he pours hundreds of millions of dollars into the race while forswearing early voting states and anchoring his campaign in delegate-rich battlegrounds such as Texas and California.
Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating is hovering near its all-time high for voter optimism over the strength of the economy. Unemployment is at a 50-year low and the stock market is near record highs as recent concerns over a five-month manufacturing contraction subside after a new report showing that sector in positive territory for the first time since July.
There’s a major flip side, of course. Trump’s unfavorability rating remains at 54%, according to the RCP average, and a new survey showing weakness among women voters has him trailing an unnamed Democratic rival by four points.
The latest Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll found 45% of voters saying they will definitely or probably vote for the Democrat, with 39% saying they would definitely or probably vote for Trump. Still, even that poll shows a four-point move in Trump’s favor since July.
Trump’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, calls the Dems’ impeachment gamble the “worst political miscalculation in American politics” amid claims of GOP fundraising windfalls. The Republican National Committee crowed that it raised three times the amount of its Democratic counterpart in the month of December, and the Trump campaign says impeachment helped it rake in a $46 million fourth-quarter haul.
Democratic presidential campaigns in the aggregate also saw their fundraising spike after the impeachment push began in September. Together, they raised more than $1 million a day that month, but the dollars were split among the Democratic field while Trump and the RNC can begin their general election months early with the opposition still splintered and fighting each other.
Of course, impeachment fallout extends beyond Trump’s political fortunes and is bipartisan. The impeaching of Trump likely complicated the reelection campaigns of GOP Sens. Susan Collins in Maine and Cory Gardner in Colorado, but it could also hurt two Democrats from states Trump won in 2016, Doug Jones of Alabama and Gary Peters of Michigan, depending on how they vote on conviction or acquittal Wednesday.
No doubt impeachment has revved up voters on both sides. The question now is which candidate will be able to keep the base the most energized until November.
“The impeachment effort has really riled Trump’s base,” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said an interview. “They would have been engaged, but this has really sped things up and they will continue to be engaged for the rest of the year at a much higher level of intensity for volunteers and donations than we would have otherwise been.”
Whether Trump can win a second term will depend on sustaining that intensity and “who has the momentum going into Election Day,” she added.
The push to keep the president’s legions of loyalists fired up while reshaping the narrative begins Tuesday night. Trump will have an opportunity to speak to the nation in a prime-time election-year State of the Union address.
The event will be packed with drama as the president stares down the 229 House Democrats who impeached him, and looking over his shoulder will be Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the charge.
Trump will undoubtedly throw out some red meat to supporters and decry the impeachment as an “unfair” trial promoted by the “fake news media” after the failure of “Russia collusion hoax.” But both Trump and his surrogates say the speech will also strike an optimistic tone amid plenty of chest-thumping about the country’s economic successes.
“Nobody’s made achievements like we’ve made,” Trump told Sean Hannity in his pre-Super Bowl interview.
Democrats counter that administration claims on the economy are overblown. The economy produced 193,000 jobs per month over the past three years, which is less than the 224,000 jobs created per month during the last three years of the Obama administration, Democrats argue.
The theme of the State of the Union is “The Great America Comeback,” with a special emphasis on the “blue-collar boom” and how the “strong economy is lifting up Americans everywhere,” a senior administration official told reporters last week.
It’s a victory lap Trump deserves to take after securing a phase one trade deal with China and signing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement into law, two potential economic stumbling blocks that are now removed, Stephen Moore, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Project for Economic Growth, told RCP.
While Trump and the GOP are still vulnerable on health care, history has been most kind to the presidents who presided over booming economies. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama and George W. Bush all won reelection during economic expansions while George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Herbert Hoover all lost amid economic downturns.
“The economy has been on a roll and if it stays like this, Trump is very likely to win,” Moore said.
The administration, he added, must make sure it does everything possible to turn the page on impeachment while controlling the coronavirus and guarding against any other “black swan” events that could derail the historic expansion.
Officials also would be wise to sell the economic story to suburban women voters who remain turned off by Trump’s bellicose personality and vitriolic tweets even if they were more ambivalent about impeachment.
Trump has a chance to start winning those disaffected women voters Tuesday night by highlighting the tangible benefits of the strong economy.
“You’re not financially stressed out, your 401(K) plans are up, you can afford to send your kids to better schools,” Moore said. “It’s cliché but it’s true. … Women often pay the bills and these are the issues they care about.”
Trump also must work to keep the blue-collar voters responsible for his 2016 White House win in his corner as Democrats continue to blast his manufacturing recovery record in key battlegrounds such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Despite a manufacturing slowdown over the last year, overall factory and mining jobs have increased by 1.5 million during Trump’s first term, according to Moore. “It’s going to be difficult for Democrats to make the claim that Trump has not performed with respect to [increasing] blue-collar jobs,” he said.
Others point to different numbers showing a 487,000 increase in manufacturing jobs under Trump compared to a net decrease of 193,000 under Obama. The current number is still 891,000 below where it was at end of December 2007, the start of the Great Recession.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
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