Off to the Races

A Week of Political Whiplash

The Democratic field grows, Pelosi dismisses impeachment talk, and the Senate rebukes Trump.

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke during a meet and greet at the Beancounter Coffeehouse & Drinkery, Thursday in Burlington, Iowa.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
March 14, 2019, 8 p.m.

Between former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Thursday announcement for the presidency and former Vice President Joe Biden looking all but certain to run, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi coming out against impeaching President Trump, and a surprising dozen Republican senators voting with the 47 Democrats in an attempt to block Trump’s border-wall emergency declaration, this is about as busy of a week that we get in politics.

Assuming Biden gets in, that brings the count of Democrats running to 16, with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Rep. Eric Swalwell said to be close to jumping in, putting the grand total of Democrats at or just above the 17 Republican contenders who ran in 2016. While the number doesn’t match the 31 flavors of ice cream offered by Baskin-Robbins, there is pretty much a flavor for everyone from center-left to hard left, only missing an avowed anarchist.

As my Cook Political Report colleague David Wasserman argues in a New York Times op-ed this week, the sheer number of Democrats running, the lack of winner-take-all primaries, the front-loaded nature of the primaries (with Florida, Texas, and perhaps 10 other states holding primaries on March 3), and the fact that superdelegates under new party rules are unable to vote on the first ballot, combine to make a protracted nomination fight all but certain. Soon we will hear the predictions that seem to come almost every four years that this may be a contested convention. The one thing we are not likely to hear is the complaint—so frequent four years ago—about not having good choices. If you can’t find at least two or three interesting candidates, you probably aren’t really a Democrat.

The theory is that a party’s chances of capturing the White House are hurt with a highly splintered field of presidential contenders, and that a long fight going all the way to the final primaries in early June makes it harder for a party to come back together. But the battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 and the huge GOP field four years ago suggest that these factors are hardly insurmountable.

It has been no secret that Pelosi has long taken a dim view of impeaching Trump. Before the election she no doubt feared the issue would be a cudgel that Republicans could use against Democrats in those moderate districts that were key to the Democrats’ chances of winning back the House—the suburbs of Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Oklahoma City. But even with the midterm elections in the rearview mirror, one gets a sense that she saw impeachment as not only a distraction but also a pointless exercise. Even assuming that Sen. Doug Jones from Alabama and all 46 of his Democratic colleagues voted for conviction, that’s just 47 votes. Pelosi might as well have said, “come back to me when you have the names of the 20 GOP senators that would be necessary to conceivably vote for conviction. Heck, 10 or even five that might.”

Privately, freshman lawmakers in swing districts surely appreciate Pelosi providing them with cover on this issue. She was willing to take more heat from the Left to protect these very vulnerable members, which of course is what leadership is all about.

Like Wisconsin Democrats painfully discovered when they attempted to recall then-Gov. Scott Walker, even when a governor or president is wildly unpopular, many Americans see the reelection campaign as the appropriate vehicle to reverse an election outcome. Some of the newbies in Congress as well as those off of Capitol Hill agitating for impeachment might consider that Pelosi had a ringside seat when Republicans engaged in a similar exercise in futility trying to remove President Clinton from office. Distracting from the presidential campaign and possibly costing them their House majority would be a pretty stiff price for pursuing something that has no chance of success.

While many Republican senators had privately expressed reservations about Trump’s declaration of a national emergency in order to justify shifting funds for the construction of a border wall, it was a real question how many would actually vote to oppose the president and risk alienating his base and activate primary opposition the next time they run for reelection. For some, it was a matter of principle; they had little if anything to gain politically from taking Trump on. The about-face by North Carolina’s Thom Tillis was quite interesting; the Tar Heel State freshman was one of the first to come out against Trump’s resolution but reversed course just before the vote. Some wonder whether it was the threat of a primary challenge next year that might have contributed to his change of heart.

Keep in mind that the last edition of Profiles in Courage has already gone to the printer; survival is a basic human instinct and North Carolina is getting less red and more purple every day. As the state becomes less Southern and more diverse and with moderate suburban voters, many moving from out of state, outnumbering rural and small-town conservatives, a general election is problematic for Tillis, but having a significant primary challenge makes that tightrope even more dangerous.

The case that this presidential election’s outcome is more out of Trump’s hands than in them remains strong. The U.S. economy grew at just over 3 percentage points in 2018 and by all accounts, the global economy is slowing down, endangering U.S. export potential. The March 10 survey of almost 50 top economists by Blue Chip Economic Indicators showed an average of 2.4 percent GDP growth for 2019 and a more sluggish 1.9 percent for 2020. While the consensus was for 1.5 percent for this current quarter, the last tranche of economic data is troubling, the March 13 “GDP Now” model for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimated first quarter GDP growth of just .4 of a point while the New York Fed’s “Nowcast” model shows current-quarter growth a bit better at 1.4 percent, the second quarter at 1.5 percent. Both models are updated several times a week with the latest economic data designed to replicate the numbers used in the official GDP calculation.

Needless to say, a slowing economy does not boost an incumbent president’s reelection chances and the economic benefit of the tax cuts appear to be rapidly diminishing. But it’s hard to forecast Trump’s chances until we find out who Democrats will nominate against him—and with this field, all indications are we won’t know for quite awhile.

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