Here’s the awful truth in a nutshell.
If US President Donald J Trump is reelected next year, this can be regarded as the ultimate stress test in US politics. It will be a benchmark of just how terrible can you be and still be reelected to the White House.
Key advisers in the campaign in prison? Check.
Historically huge turnover in cabinet members, with some leaving in disgrace? Check.
Appalling mendacity which forced the US media to break a long-standing taboo and actually admit in print that the president lies? Check.
An impeachment process that has laid bare how the president twisted the arm of a foreign government for personal political gain? Check.
Now, the impeachment process is an intensely partisan process. It has always been so. Democrats led the impeachment process against Republican President Richard Nixon in 1974 and Republicans returned the compliment in their impeachment process against Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1998.
This time around, the Democrats are leading the attack on a Republican president. On the whole, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the focus and discipline of the Democrats.
There is always a tension between a party’s die-hard base and its savvy elected officials who always keep a careful eye on which way the winds of opinion are blowing. (After all, they’re the ones who have to get reelected.)
I saw this first hand in the 2018 Congressional campaign at an event for the Democratic candidate in an Atlanta suburb. The Democratic hopeful at that time, Lucy McBath, was fighting a tough, almost impossible race. Supporters at the event were all gung-ho partisans who were seething over the fact that Trump wasn’t already impeached.
McBath reacted with calmness and certainty of purpose. While she shared much of the outrage of some supporters, she steadfastly stood her ground as she insisted that she would much rather focus on bread-and-butter issues, because that’s what constituents wanted.
True to her word, she stuck to her guns. It turned out she was right. History was made when McBath, an African American gun-rights advocate, won an improbable victory in a predominantly white ruby-red Republican Congressional constituency which was once the stomping ground of firebrand Newt Gingrich, a former Republican House Speaker.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did exactly the same thing on the national level. She kept a tight lid on the partisan clamor for impeachment until an explosive whistleblower charge accused Trump of twisting the arm of Ukraine for personal political gain. She was forced to launch impeachment hearings.
The resulting proceedings do the Democrats enormous credit.
What’s remarkable here is what did not happen. The US House brings together arguably one of most narcissistic bunch of people on earth. Many a proceeding can quickly descend into a dreadful love-fest: A lawmaker deeply in love with his/her own voice. Some of this was embarrassingly evident during the earlier Robert Mueller hearings, when a lawmaker would ramble on and on until a listener was wondering what on earth the question was.
This time around, though, the initial hearings heard from non-partisan witnesses, many of such impeccable standing that even Republican lawmakers shied away from going after them. The testimony of these witnesses built a rock-solid case against Trump’s malfeasance.
At the judiciary committee, distinguished experts of constitutional law provided their considered, sober opinion on why Trump ought to be impeached.
The whole process was fast, thorough and rigorous, and best of all, free of Democratic bombast and grandstanding. Republicans are another story.
However, here’s the brutal fact: A fat lot of good it will all do.
Such is the state of the nation where partisan fissures run so deep. All politics is tribal now. A substantial chunk of Republicans has turned into “the Fifth Avenue crowd”—a reference to Trump’s acute observation that his supporters wouldn’t desert him even if he shot somebody in New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
So, it is shocking, but not surprising, that polls show that the dramatic revelations at the impeachment hearings have barely moved the needle in terms of public opinion.
This brings us to the mind-boggling possibility that despite everything Trump is still quite competitive. The fact that Democrats took back the House in 2018 is cold comfort, because presidential elections are a completely different beast.
If the US presidential elections were decided by popular vote, it would have been a foregone conclusion.
But the presidential elections are fought on a state-by-state basis.
This is how it plays out: There are a whole bunch of solidly Democratic states, another whole bunch of solidly Republican states, and the fight comes down to a handful of so-called battleground states where the jury is still out. Here the shots could well be called by a demographic cohort that is particularly partial to Trump—what political analysts call white non-college educated whites. Trump is particularly canny at riling up this group with his race-baiting antics.
So, it might well be that despite coming short in the popular vote by several millions, Trump could eke out a victory come November 2020. On the other hand, some analysts are beginning to wonder if a president with such a terrible public standing can actually win reelection.
“For now, there is simply no empirical reason to believe that Trump will win next year,” respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote recently.
“In fact, the evidence is not compelling in either direction. . .
“For the moment, all we can safely say is that polls continue to confirm that Trump is in deep trouble, with a job approval rating that no incumbent president seeking reelection would want.”
As the great American baseball player had observed: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.