How Democrats Could Leverage Trump's Sinking Presidency
Anyone who thinks Donald Trump's staggering, stumbling presidency is going to destroy the Republican Party really needs to remember what actually happened after Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974.
Yes, Republicans were routed in the midterm elections that year and lost the presidency in 1976. But they recovered strongly in 1978 and 1980. It was the same story after the Iran-Contra scandal in late 1986, which severely hurt Ronald Reagan's approval numbers, but didn't even cost Republicans the White House in 1988. George W. Bush's unpopular presidency wiped out the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 ... but then they rallied back sharply only two years later during Barack Obama's mildly unpopular early presidency.
Voters have extremely short memories. But the effects of an electoral disaster caused by their temporary shifts can be enormously long-lived in terms of policy, judges and energizing the opposition.
First of all, the status-quo bias of the U.S. political system means that it's very difficult to pass anything major, but that once something does pass, it's hard to dislodge it. We may yet see a major Republican health care bill pass during this Congress, but even if that does happen, much of the Affordable Care Act will survive. And that bill only passed because of George W. Bush's massive unpopularity after the Iraq War and the recession that began in late 2007, leading to Democratic landslides in 2006 and 2008. Similarly, Jimmy Carter's inept presidency yielded the 1980 Republican landslide and Ronald Reagan's big tax cuts and budget changes in 1981, much of which survived for a long time.
The electoral reaction doesn't last -- Republicans stormed back in 2010, just as Democrats had done back in 1982. But the policy changes that couldn't have happened otherwise persist.
What else lives on long after a landslide? Judges. The effects of Lyndon Johnson's electorally disastrous Vietnam War lived until Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee, died in 2005. Jimmy Carter's failure to win a second term will live on as long as Justice Anthony Kennedy stays on the high court. And the effects of Bush's Iraq folly and the Bush-era recession will last as long as Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan remain on the bench. Not to mention the dozens and dozens of lower-court judges that also matter quite a lot. Granted, not all shifts of partisan control of the White House are caused by incumbent ineptness (or even just incumbent bad luck). But when a party does give up the presidency unnecessarily, the effects are huge even though the electoral punishment doesn't last long.
And there's a third long-lived effect. We think of the Affordable Care Act as Barack Obama's accomplishment, but it's at least equally the achievement of a group of members of Congress. Five of them -- Henry Waxman, George Miller, Max Baucus, Chris Dodd and Tom Harkin -- were Watergate babies. That is, they were first elected to Congress in the 1974 Democratic landslide brought on by Richard Nixon's scandal.
It's impossible to know exactly how important the skills that these legislators had developed over the decades were to getting "Obamacare" over the finish line. Obviously if they had never been elected, some other Democrats would have been the chairs of House Energy and Commerce, Senate Finance, and the other relevant committees. But I think most congressional observers would agree that their level of skill and expertise was unusually high, and it's quite possible that they did make the difference on that bill (and several others over the course of their careers). And while some Watergate babies might have had congressional careers regardless of that scandal, it's quite possible that some of them would not.
So, yes, if anyone tells you that Donald Trump will permanently destroy the Republican Party you can safely ignore it -- even if Trump winds up as unpopular as Carter, Nixon and Bush, it's very unlikely to do lasting electoral damage. But if Trump does produce a Democratic landslide or two, the effects may last a long, long time.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at firstname.lastname@example.org