Trump riding high, but it’s a long way to Election Day
By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: February 6, 2020
If President Donald Trump seemed unusually expansive and his fellow Republicans especially exuberant at Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech, it was certainly understandable.
After all, Trump was just hours away from Senate acquittal on two impeachment charges, armed with statistics reflecting continued economic strength, and buoyed by the mess Iowa’s Democrats made of Monday’s caucuses and the defeat there of the rival he spent months trying to destroy, Joe Biden.
In addition, Democratic turnout in Iowa failed to reach predicted levels, often a reflection of enthusiasm, and a new Gallup Poll put Trump’s job approval at 49%, the highest of his presidency.
“The state of our union is stronger than ever before,” Trump said in a speech that mixed genuinely impressive economic statistics with elaborate exaggerations of his administration’s record.
Still, as the late Dallas-Washington lawyer-lobbyist-political guru Bob Strauss always said, in politics things are never as good or bad as they seem.
Regardless of ultimate Senate acquittal, Trump will forever be the third impeached American president, most Americans believe he improperly pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden and there are signs the economy may be slowing after a decade of growth.
Meanwhile, the shape of the Democratic race to oppose Trump remains murky, though it’s clear two candidates gained the most in Iowa, 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg and 78-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Partial caucus results released Tuesday showed them leading the field, and, while the delay limited their ability to crow, Buttigieg claimed victory even before any votes were released.
Biden stressed, despite a disappointing showing, “we’re in this for the long haul.” But unless he can rebound in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, or Buttigieg can match his Iowa showing there or elsewhere, the biggest long-term winner may prove to be Mike Bloomberg, whom Trump seems to dislike even more than Biden.
Polls show rising national and state support for the billionaire former New York mayor, who entered too late for the first four contests but is spending millions on TV ads for March 3 primaries in states like California and Texas. A new Texas poll showed him tied for third. His first test may come in the Feb. 19 debate in Nevada.
The daylong glitch over counting Iowa’s results may have temporarily obscured Biden’s poor fourth-place finish. But finishing behind Sanders, Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren renewed early doubts the erstwhile front-runner could meet expectations.
Polls show he is unlikely to win New Hampshire and faces a real fight against Sanders in Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses. He also is short on funds as the race heads to what his campaign regards as his firewall, South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary.
If the former vice president’s candidacy craters, the biggest question over the next month may be whether Buttigieg or Bloomberg can inherit his place as the leading moderate rival to Sanders, who seems likely to consolidate his position as the progressive front-runner by repeating his 2016 New Hampshire victory.
Based on Iowa network entrance polls, Buttigieg showed a breadth of support neither Sanders nor Biden can match. Sanders scored strongly among younger voters but weakly among older ones; Biden did well among the elderly but poorly among younger ones; while the former South Bend, Ind., mayor did equally well across the spectrum.
In addition, Sanders gained fewer votes than Buttigieg from caucus attendees whose initial favorites fell beneath the 15% threshold, prompting FiveThirtyEight analyst Nate Silver to observe it was “not a very great sign for Sanders’ ability to expand his coalition beyond his base.”
And the Iowa Democrats’ counting problems became another GOP weapon for Trump and top aides. “Nothing works, just like they ran the country,” the president tweeted.
In that context, Tuesday night’s speech sounded like a convention acceptance speech, replete with attacks on socialism and Democratic lawmakers and chants from Republicans of “four more years.” While GOP lawmakers greeted almost every Trump proposal or statement with applause, most Democrats sat glumly silent, looking down or, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, shaking their heads.
Trump was none too friendly toward the speaker either, failing to extend a handshake — and spurning hers — as presidents usually do when he arrived on the dais and handed her a copy of his speech. When he finished, she tore it up, later deriding it as a “manifesto of mistruths.”
The president’s theme was “the great American comeback” and he declared, “the years of economic decay are over.” But overall economic growth last year slipped to 2.3%, the lowest since 2016. Along with promises, he repeated many past misstatements, like pledging to protect patients with preexisting conditions.
Trump made no explicit reference to the House-passed impeachment resolution, but may have alluded to it when he observed, “The only victories that matter in Washington are the victories that deliver to the American people.”
Unsurprisingly, much of what Trump said was aimed at securing another victory — in November. At present, he is riding higher politically than at any point in his presidency, but the experiences of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are a reminder that the nine months from now to Election Day are a political lifetime.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.