Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
A new CNN poll shows Donald Trump being easily beaten in 2020 by three potential Democratic nominees. Joe Biden is ahead 57-40%. Bernie Sanders by 55-42%. Oprah Winfrey by 51-42%.
Should the President panic? No. Trump has a history of coming from behind and surprising us, and by 2020 he hopes to have accumulated a raft of real accomplishments to beat his opponents with.
So how are we to receive the news of this poll?
To begin with, we need a new rule when it comes to discussing Donald Trump: He won in 2016, get over it.
Constant debate about how he did it or what it says about America is redundant. In fact, this rehashing works to his advantage, not only because it winds up liberals to the point of madness, but because it focuses conversation on the point in history when he was probably at his most popular.
In the cold reality of today, things are very different. The so-called populist President enjoys a 40% approval rating at best. If there were an election tomorrow, he would lose.
But to whom?
These three candidates? To be sure, they reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the field. They are talented and charismatic; they could match Trump in debates. But Biden (75) and Sanders (76) are advancing in age, and picking Winfrey would mean succumbing to the kind of shallow celebrity politics that Trump has exploited.
Where’s the young talent? And how would any of these three smooth over the cracks in the Democrat coalition, torn, as it is, between moderation and radicalism?
Moreover, it is far, far too early to make a judgment on a president’s vulnerability – or lack of it – based on polls taken three years before the election. This is partly because an opponent is popular only so long as he or she hasn’t declared. That’s when things change.
Around this point in the 2016 cycle, Hillary Clinton enjoyed an approval rating of around 60%. After she declared her candidacy, her numbers slowly fell. Trump’s never rose very far, but he proved brilliant at identifying the weakness of his opponent, deploying ridicule to bring them down. Remember Crooked Hillary? Low Energy Jeb? Just imagine what derogatory epithets he’ll cook up for Joe, Bernie or Oprah.
And in the coming presidential election, Trump won’t just have personality to run on – but achievement, too. It’s possible to see his signature immigration policy, like health care, becoming bogged down in endless congressional warfare – especially if, as is likely, the Democrats triumph in the 2018 midterm elections.
But by 2020 – if Trump’s policies work, and, yes, that’s a big if – America’s position may have substantially changed. The mix of deregulation and tax cuts may mean an enormous repatriation of capital currently placed overseas, while generous new tax rules will make it far easier to build and invest on US shores – meaning, hopefully, boom time for businessmen, workers and shareholders. There are signs of this already.
At the same time, fingers crossed, the new Middle East alliance of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US may see Islamist extremism pushed back and (it would be nice) Iran brought to heel. North Korea remains a tough nut to crack, but Obama’s approach clearly didn’t work, so we can only pray that Trump’s will terrify Pyongyang into taking a more rational course.
The point is that when the next presidential election comes around, the Democrats will not necessarily be fighting on that moral turf upon which they enjoy signaling their virtue. The government shutdown, for instance, was about defending the rights of children who were brought into the US illegally. Good for the Democrats: they’re in the right on this one.
But while it’s easy to expose the moral shortcomings of the President in the here and now, three years from now the Democrats will have to confront the legacy of Trump’s long-term projects – a legacy that may prove very attractive to the American voter.
That’s why if journalists, like me, want to hold the Trump administration to account, we need to focus more on what the President does rather than what he says.
And it’s why the Democrats need to challenge Trump on the broader implications of his presidency, rather than screaming about Russia, Steve Bannon and whether or not the President eats too many cheeseburgers. Behind the tweets, he might just be remaking America.