Charlie Cook, one of Washington’s most-respected political analysts, has identified what he calls the “Trump Penalty” going into the 2018 midterm elections. He describes it as “the price [President Trump] and his party are paying for his modus operandi.” I think it is fair to say that most GOP leaders think Trump is a weight on the Republican ticket. But before we declare Trump to be a complete albatross, a little perspective is in order. Don’t get me wrong: I think the GOP is destined to lose the House majority in November. I’m just not sure how much Trump has to do with it.
As a matter of comparison, it would certainly appear that there was an “Obama Penalty” for Democrats in 2010. When President Barack Obama’s job approval was hovering in the mid- to upper-40s — generally just a few points higher than President Trump’s — Democrats lost 63 seats in the House, six seats in the Senate and six governorships. By that standard, there is almost no chance that the Trump Penalty will be as severe as the Obama Penalty. Why isn’t Trump doing more damage to the Republican Party in his first two years than Obama did to the Democrats during his first two years? Isn’t Trump the more objectionable character? Wasn’t Obama the better president? So far it isn’t clear that the 2018 elections will confirm those assertions.
Other presidents have been a burden to their party during midterms, too. We’ll skip the 2002 midterms in George W. Bush’s first term, since I think the results were skewed by 9/11. Rather, let’s assess the 1994 midterms. Like Trump and Obama, President Bill Clinton’s approval was in the 40s at the midpoint of the election year. Democrats lost 52 seats in the House, eight seats in the Senate and 11 governorships.
The 1994 and 2010 midterms were clear repudiations of the Clinton and Obama presidencies. It might seem counterintuitive, but for all the wailing, weeping and gnashing of teeth about Trump and for all the fawning over Obama and the nostalgia for Clinton, it is unlikely that Trump will be more of a burden on Republicans in 2018 than Obama and Clinton appear to have been in 2010 and 1994. How can that be? I’m not asking the question to make a point. I’m asking the question because I truly don’t know the answer. What is it we might be getting wrong about Trump?
As Hugh Hewitt bluntly put it in his piece for The Post on Monday, perhaps Democrats are spooking many moderate voters. He explains that “electing Democrats to a majority in the House or the Senate at the height of the party’s lurch left would be a disaster: Impeachment, demands for massive income tax hikes and the effort to abolish [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] would follow, while also throwing the military rebuild into reverse and the economy into paralysis because of the inability of business to predict the future with anything like certainty.” Maybe Democrats should hit the pause button. Perhaps voters aren’t in the market for what Democrats are selling. Maybe the media isn’t painting an accurate picture of what is really going on.
The elections are just over three months away and voters are understandably disturbed by Trump’s demeanor and inappropriate behavior. But voters don’t appear eager to hand over the reins to Democrats, who are mostly interested in impeaching the president, abolishing ICE, flirting with socialism and undoing the Trump economy. Ironically, the Democratic Party’s anti-Trump obsession and disregard for centrist positions and maintaining a robust economy are what might end up limiting Republican losses. Go figure.