Ben Roback: From Presidents 41 to 45 – different backgrounds, different manners, different beliefs, and a different Republian Party

The older Bush was a man of free markets, small government, global engagement…and good manners.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

The death of George Herbert Walkr Bush had the rarest of knock-on effects in the current political climate: it united Washington and bridged the political divides that have hang over today’s political and social culture. Regardless of one’s politics, it was impossible to look beyond a lifetime of military and political service that came to an end after 94 years.

The most memorable image was that of President Bush’s service dog, Sully, laying beside a flag-draped casket. Sully will return to America’s VetDogs, a charity that provides companions for former veterans and, in no time at all, America will return to a more combative politics. Bush senior is the first President to lie in state since the death of President Ford in 2006. Only 32 people have ever lain in state in the Rotunda, including John McCain who died earlier this year.

Donald Trump visited the Rotunda to pay his respects, having clashed in the past with the former President. To say their relationship was uneasy is something of an understatement. In Mark Updegrove’s The Last Republicans, the author reports that Bush voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and called Trump a “blowhard”. The New York Times reported that ‘“at the mere mention of Trump’s name, 41 made a face. ‘He’s an ass,’ he snapped.”’

Whilst the visit was clearest manifestation of an uneasy peace, Trump’s attitude and approach to the living presidents that came before him paint a clearer picture of his attitudes to presidential predecessors.

The “Former Presidents Club” is one of the most exclusive groupings in the world. It has also traditionally been a rich resource for the sitting president to call on the expertise and experience of his predecessors. Not so for Trump, who tends to view those who came before him as adversaries who must to be sparred with. According to CNN, Trump has only spoken to George W Bush a handful of times, and has not engaged with Barack Obama directly since they parted ways in front of the Capitol building two years ago. Indirectly, of course, Trump finds reasons to attack Obama on Twitter with effortless frequency.

The current President has also found flaws with the non-presidential members of the Bush family. Trump decried Jeb Bush, a competitor in the 2016 Republican primary, as being “low energy”, while Bush in turn painted Donald Trump as a friend of Hillary Clinton. Trump has never been a fan of the Bush family legacy, and has said: “We need another Bush in office about as much as we need Obama to have a 3rd term. No more Bushes!”  During the heat of the 2016 campaign, Barbara Bush, the matriarch of the family, described Trump as a “comedian” and a “showman”. It was perhaps telling that after her death, the White House announced that Trump would not attend her funeral. It remains open to debate whether that was by choice or due to the lack of an invitation.

The former President was undoubtedly different from his successor, and not just in personality and temperament. In many ways, 41’s death could be seen to symbolise the death of what the Republican Party once was. Bush was a man of free markets and the emergence of the “small government” doctrine which (until Trump) has been the foundation of the mainstream GOP. On the global stage, the Bush presidency saw the emergence of the United States as the unchallenged power in a post-Cold War world. With it came a renewed commitment to American interventionism, and the firm belief that the US should seek to mould the “New World Order” – a phrase coined by Bush in a speech to the UN. This vision is at total odds with Trump’s pre-World War Two-style American isolationism and his ‘America First’ doctrine.

To the credit of the President and the White House, the memorial events of this week have been attended with respect. But, even then, the temptation of Twitter is only a smartphone away – and so, during a week of solemn reflection in Washington, we have had tweets about the Paris climate agreement, Robert Mueller, the wall…the list goes on. It was a fresh reminder of the new normal in American politics – that civility is a rarity and combativeness is a permanent requirement.

Political anger suits both sides in a country in which party loyalty is rewarded and bipartisanship punished. The likes of George H.W Bush and Senator John McCain, both of whom died this year, have become the exception and not the rule. Their approach to politics is that of a dying breed, replaced by new ways that waste no time worrying about national unity. With our own nation divided by Brexit, it is a desperate reminder to our political leaders to maintain a level of cooperation and class even when others around them are lowering the bar.

Ben Roback. America’s mid-terms. Not so much a blue wave as a blue ripple.

The Republicans made gains in the Senate, the Democrats won back the House – but that’s not enough to give them the stranglehold on Trump that they wanted.

What we know so far

The midterm elections promised high drama and did not disappoint. They offered cause or celebration for both Democrats and Republicans, and whilst Donald Trump’s tweet celebrating “tremendous success” might have been a little wide of the mark, it is the Republicans who are breathing the biggest sigh of relief.

The significant headline is that the Democrats have won back the majority of the House, whilst the Republicans not only retained but made gains in the Senate. A record number of women and minority candidates have been elected, including the first Muslim congresswoman, first openly gay man elected governor, and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

The Democrats win back the House

In the House of Representatives, Democrats will now be able to flex their muscles and be a true check on the power of the president. Their majority means they can launch subpoena-powered investigations into issues that have fired up their base – such as alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and ethics scandals within the White House.

Above all, the new House will almost certainly try to force the president to publish his infamously private tax returns. So worried were Republicans in August at the prospect of the White House becoming a living legal nightmare that they collated a spreadsheet of potential investigations that the Democrats might launch if they won back the House.  It was long then and will have got longer since.

On the more prosaic matter of legislation, the Democratic majority means that the president no longer has a unified legislature on Capitol Hill. Republican legislation will therefore only make its way to the president’s desk if it has Democratic support – a prospect that seems highly unlikely given the ultra-partisan nature of Washington politics right now.

One potential solution for the president is to recast himself as a champion of bipartisan politics and working across the aisle, a delicate act that Bill Clinton famously mastered. For Democrats, whose base were motivated to vote in support of core progressive policies such as healthcare protection as much as a protest vote against the president, there seems to be little incentive whatsoever to give Trump’s legislative agenda a helping hand. Therefore, short of a potential bill on infrastructure spending, we are probably heading into two years of legislative gridlock on Capitol Hill.

With their regained power comes a challenge in expectation management for the Democratic House leadership, namely Nancy Pelosi. The prospect of impeachment looms large, and the Democrats now at least have control of the right infrastructure to initiate it. But whilst the “I” word hangs over Washington, last year only 58 Democrats voted to support even debating Trump’s impeachment, and there is little evidence of that number growing significantly.

And even with impeachment proceedings initiated in the House, it would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to impeach the president. With an increased Republican majority in the upper chamber, that prospect seems impossible. Therefore, much like the challenge Nicola Sturgeon faces in calming her base down in their demands for a second Independence Referendum, Pelosi may find that the ability to initiate impeachment proceedings is both a blessing and a curse.

Republicans buoyed by gains in the Senate

Despite talk of a ‘blue wave’, Democrats were facing a difficulty-drawn electoral map for them in their doomed attempt to win back the majority in the Senate.

It is worth remembering that 26 of the 35 seats up for election were held by Democrats going into the midterms. Nevertheless, whilst Republicans were confident of holding onto the Senate, the addition of two further seats represents a hugely welcome boost.

There was the jubilation of winning back North Dakota, where Heidi Heitkamp became the second Democrat of the night to lose re-election in what was long considered the most vulnerable incumbency of this cycle. Elation at this victory combined with relief in Texas, where Ted Cruz held off an unlikely Democratic insurgency led by Beto O’Rourke.

With more Republicans in the upper chamber, Trump will try to force through as many of his judicial nominees and political appointees as possible. With a relatively clear run for the next two years, the president will begin early preparation for the 2020 general election by delivering those appointees for his base whilst painting Democrats in the House as obstructionists hellbent on getting in his way.

The candidates that have emerged for 2020

Given the iron grip that Trump has secured over the GOP, there is little point wasting time considering Republican primary challengers to the president for 2020. It is close to impossible to foresee a serious challenge being mounted to a president who has an 88 per cent approval rating amongst Republicans (via Gallup).

For Democrats, the story is different, and the 2020 field is wide open. The darling of the progressives, Beto O’Rourke, became the breakout star of the 2018 campaign and has that rare ability in politics to be recognised only by his first name (think Donald, Boris and Jeremy). The Democrat raised an eye-watering $70 million, and only narrowly lost in a state that Democrats have not won state-wide in for 24 years.

Nevertheless, elections are binary and Beto failed to defeat Ted Cruz in the Texas senate race, but that is not expected to limit his ambitions in 2020.

A less obvious name to watch, Sherrod Brown, the Governor of Ohio, easily defeated his Republican challenger and immediately referenced a “blueprint for our nation in 2020”. He is clearly a man with presidential ambitions, in a party that has still not healed the wounds of the divide between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Analysis – Five final thoughts

  • Blue ripple: Democrats had allowed themselves to get excited by the idea of a ‘blue wave’, but the result was more mixed. Democrats were expected to regain the majority in the House: the President’s party has lost House seats in 35 out of the 39 midterm elections since 1862. Republicans will be relieved to have retained control of the Senate, but ecstatic about making gains: the President’s party has only previously picked up Senate seats in 12 out of the 39 midterms since 1862 (here).
  • The Trump effect: In the final week before the election, Trump held 11 rallies in eight states, focusing on tight races for Senate and governor places. Of the candidates he called onstage to speak at those events, his record in the races decided so far is seven victories to two losses.
  • Obama-Trump voters. There are 21 districts that were won by both Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. So far, Democrats have either won or are winning two-thirds of those. Democrats will be pleased to have made gains, since a lot of these places that had slipped away from them — such as the North-East, especially Upstate New York, Staten Island and suburban New Jersey, as well as parts of the Midwest.
  • The Pelosi effect: Pelosi is the new House Majority Leader and will lead the Democratic charge against the president on the Hill. With a Democratic majority, the president will face almost constant gridlock in Washington and struggle to pursue any kind of legislative agenda for the next two years. Both Trump and Pelosi are unpopular (with a 53 per cent unfavourable rating with Real Clear Politics), and the president will make her a leading feature of his campaign for re-election in 2020. Meanwhile, Pelosi and Democrats on House Committees will work hard to probe the Trump family, most likely demanding he publishes his tax returns.
  • Turnout: Record turnout is expected for the midterm elections. In the early vote, voters age 50+ saw their electorate share drop from 2014 by 7.4 points, replaced by a surge in younger voters, driven primarily by voters under the age of 30 (via Target Smart).

Lord Ashcroft: “I was like, we must pick one of these? But I’m pleasantly surprised.” My pre-election focus groups from California.

Despite his dominance of the national scene, Trump was hardly a consideration for most of our participants when it came to deciding how to vote this week.

The final round of our American research tour takes us to two districts in California, one in prosperous Orange County and another further north around the city of Fresno. This is usually thought of as a heavily Democratic state, but the Republicans are defending crucial districts here that could decide whether they keep control of Congress this week. These include districts which elected Republican Congressmen two years ago, but chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for President. How they choose this time will help determine the balance of power in Washington.

The migrant caravan making its way to the US from Honduras continues to loom large in voters’ minds as they began to make their minds up. Our groups’ reaction was a combination of sympathy for the families leaving their countries in search of a better life, and resolve that America’s borders – including California’s – had the be protected and the law enforced: “For me it’s really a hard story, because I understand how difficult their lives are in the country they’re coming from, because their government doesn’t protect them. There aren’t jobs, they are in fear for their children’s lives, and so I have compassion for them. But at the same time there are people all over the world who don’t have that access. They don’t have that border to cross.”

“I’m an immigrant. I came here the legal way, and I worked my way to college education to be where I’m standing. It’s really heartbreaking. You hate to see people suffer, but laws have to be upheld.”

“I think the idea that anybody can come here without any legalities really undermines our foundation as a country.”

Though most supported the President’s decision to deploy troops to the border, many were uneasy about the potential consequences: “they’re going to try to hold them so they don’t cross, and something’s going to happen and there will be physical violence;”

“I do think we need to have some sort of protection, but it’s just I feel like it’s going to get out of hand.”

– – – – – – – – – –

By the nature of the districts we visited, many of our participants leaned Republican but had voted only very reluctantly for Trump, if they had done so at all (“I always thought he was kind of a pompous ass… But there really wasn’t anyone else and we were kind of stuck.”

Most had been put off by his antics rather than anything to do with policy – but while no-one liked his behaviour any more than they did two years ago, several felt he has turned out to be a more effective President than they had feared.

“I was like, really, we have to pick between these two? Oh gosh. But honestly, I’m kind of pleasantly surprised. His mouth needs some work, we knew that. That may even be worse than what I thought it would be. But as far as what he’s actually doing, I’m pleased.”

“I think it’s good that the Koreas are starting to talk. They’ve always been separate since I could remember because the Korean war predates me and I’m old, so that’s nice. That’s something I thought we’d never see.”

Those who had been pleasantly surprised often mentioned the economy: “I got to be honest about it. I had no intention of voting for him because I thought he was a joke. But being a blue collar worker, being a construction worker, for commercial drivers the work has tripled for me since he’s been in office. So for me, OK maybe Trump is immature and he’s definitely not a politician, he’s a businessman. Maybe that’s what we needed.”

“It’s his administration. The government doesn’t create jobs unless they’re building new departments and things of that nature. But it’s obvious that our business sector is fairly comfortable with the climate that is currently within the United States, and they are the ones that are putting jobs in place there.”

Not everyone was impressed, however: “Disrespecting the German woman. I mean she’s a woman, and I’m sure he doesn’t like the fact that she’s in power. Our U.K. allies, they’ve been our allies forever and he’s completely disrespectful of the Queen and the parliament. And it’s just mind-boggling to me that there’s no respect for anything, he just thinks he’s better than everyone.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Despite his dominance of the national political scene, Trump himself was hardly a consideration for most of our participants when it came to deciding how to vote this week. For one thing, most did not see him and the Republican party as the same thing: “He’s just his own kind of guy. I wouldn’t put a bad name to the whole Republican party just because of one person.”

Though who will control Congress is a consideration, the bigger one for our groups is the quality of their local candidates, and how they stand on the issues that mattered to them: “I’m looking for who seems to be the best person for the position, whether that be Republican or Democrat. I just want somebody – the most honest person, I know that sounds insane when we’re talking about politics but, you know, I have a certain way that I live my life with morals and standards. And I kind of expect the same out of my politicians to some degree.”

“I’m one of these people that is a registered Republican, but I like to base it on whoever is the candidate, rather than Democrat or Republican. I mean I really hate it when you say: are you going to go blue or red?”

“If I was voting on a generic ballot I would vote one way. Does Trump influence that generic ballot? Yes. But my actual vote in this congressional race – I have problems with both candidates.”

Most expected stalemate in the event that the Democrats take the House, rather than any real change. Politicians seemed to have lost the art of getting together to work things out: “Just like we’re doing right here, this roundtable were doing here. That’s what they need to do over there. You need to take this podcast and show it to them and say: “this is the way you to do things, so you guys can collaborate and get your ideas together. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Well, it is rocket science to some people unfortunately.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Since I was in the area, I dropped in on the legendary Democratic campaign strategist Bob Shrum, at the University of Southern California where he is now Professor of Practical Politics. Did he think there was any risk that a good result for his party this November would make them complacent for the bigger contest in 2020?

“I don’t think after 2016 that there is the slightest chance that Democrats will ever again assume a presidential election is in the bag – at least those who were alive in 2016. I was on a show here on showtime called The Circus with Mike Murphy, who is my co-director here at the Centre for the Political Future – a Republican strategist, a longtime friend of mine, we campaigned against each other but we like each other. And I said, and he concurred, that no way no how, in no universe, not this one or an alternative one, could Trump be President the United States. I don’t think people are ever going to get that complacent again.”

Hillary Clinton could have won, he thinks, if she had chosen a different nominee for Vice President: “If she had picked Bernie Sanders – look at the three states we’re talking about, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania – she won Pennsylvania, she lost Michigan, she lost Wisconsin to him in the primaries. She might very well have won. So I think that there were a lot of things that went wrong in that campaign.”

“But most fundamentally Trump won the message war. You can have all the bells and whistles in the world, you can have all the data analytics in the world, you can have all the targeting and organisation in the world. But if you lose the message war you’re likely to lose the election. And Trump had a very simple message: “Make America Great Again – we’re not great now”. And the problem is immigration and I’m going to stop the immigrants. And the problem is foreign trade, and I’m going to take care of that too. And everybody knew it. You know Hillary Clinton’s slogan, “Stronger Together”, was not about her. It was actually a hidden negative critique or a coded negative critique of him. So she didn’t have a real economic message that got conveyed to voters.”

What direction would the party be taking – are Democrats yearning to go in a more liberal direction? “My own sense is that Democrats are going to be pretty pragmatic in 2020, that they’re going to ask a fundamental question, and that fundamental question is going to be: who has the best chance to beat Trump? And I think that’s where the party will ultimately settle in terms of a nominee.

But when you’re looking at 20, 22, 23 people who want to run forPpresident, you’re looking at a process that could be quite unique. I mean, the Republicans had to divide their debates into two parts. Last time, they had the big people’s debate and then they had the kids table. That could happen with Democrats too.”

Even so, if one candidate picked up early momentum it could be over sooner than people expect: “The other thing that will be interesting is to see whether or not one candidate can win both Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s only happened twice. When it happens, the process tends to collapse toward that candidate… It’s possible that everybody’s going to run around saying “oh my God, there are so many candidates, this process is going to take so long, it’s going to be so expensive, it’s so draining…. But it’s possible, just barely possible, that it could get over pretty fast.”

Listen to Lord Ashcroft’s interviews with Bob Shrum, John Kasich and others – as well as extracts and analysis from his pre-election focus groups, on the Ashcroft in America podcast.