Like generals preparing to fight past wars, politicians constantly construct Maginot Lines to defend frontiers against dangers that no longer exist. For these self-involved politicos and pundits, the last election always seems to be the one that signaled the end of history.
Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964 was widely believed to be conservatism’s last stand. The New York Times’s James Reston declared that the vanquished GOP nominee “has wrecked his party for a long time.” The New Yorker similarly proclaimed, “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” And none other than James MacGregor Burns predicted that Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide “would surely usher in a liberal epoch.”
Republicans would win the White House in six of the next seven presidential elections. What would eventually become Ronald Reagan’s revolution was launched two years after America’s most esteemed journalists declared conservatism dead.
Rick Perlstein, who gathered those fallacious forecasts for his 2001 book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” described the media’s reaction to LBJ’s landslide as “one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism.” And yet Perlstein himself would predict in those same pages that the 21st century would be “as surely a conservative epoch as the era between the New Deal and the Great Society was a liberal one.” GOP strategist Karl Rove agreed, believing George W. Bush would usher in a permanent Republican majority.
But within a few years, Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House, Barack Obama was president, liberals controlled Congress, and universal health-care coverage became the law of the land — which, of course, led to the tea party revolt in 2010, Obama again in 2012, right-wing Republican victories in 2014 and Donald Trump’s demolition of both party machines in 2016.
In another dramatic failure of American journalism’s collective discernment, almost no one saw President Trump coming.
“GOP insiders: Trump can’t win” blared a Politico headline over an article filled with quotes from Republican leaders such as this one: “It would take video evidence of a smiling Hillary [Clinton] drowning a litter of puppies while terrorists surrounded her with chants of ‘Death to America’ ” for the GOP nominee to win the presidency. CBS News’s Bob Schieffer reported that he could not find “a single Republican” who thought Trump could win. Even suggesting that Trump had an outside chance of beating Clinton provoked heated rebuttals and snide asides on the set of “Morning Joe.”
Trump’s stunning victory created such disorienting shock waves across Washington that neither Democrats nor Republicans understood what the accidental president admitted to me a month after his win.
“The election could have been held 20 different times, but that was probably the one day I would have won,” the president-elect said in December 2016. “Everything came together at once.”
The resulting political horror show produced daily by Trump has left journalists and politicians reeling but has failed to alter a few basic rules of politics:
First, presidents with approval ratings in the low 40s lose their majorities in Congress. Second, kowtowing to ex-KGB agents erodes support with registered independents. Third, lying about payoffs to a porn star and a Playboy model rarely helps with swing-state voters.
Like the multitude of mere mortals who faced voters before him, Trump may finally be feeling gravity’s unforgiving pull as one summer scandal bleeds into another. A recent Quinnipiac University poll put the president’s approval rating at 38 percent. More troubling for Trump’s quislings in Congress should be the political beating Midwest voters are dishing out on the politician they helped elect president. According to an NBC News-Marist poll, only 28 percent of registered voters in Michigan believe Trump deserves to be reelected, while only 30 percent of those surveyed in Minnesota and 31 percent in Wisconsin believe he deserves reelection. Republicans are also trailing badly in generic ballot tests, and Democrats’ prospects for taking over the House and Senate continue to rise.
The political news for Republicans is so bad that even Trump is blinking. Vladimir Putin will not be coming to the White House this year; the president has put major pieces of his trade war on hold and has shelved any plans to shut down the government this fall. But Republicans hoping to save themselves from the political storm that will soon wipe away their congressional majorities would be well served to speak out against Trump’s most destructive policies, which are anti-conservative, illiberal and sure to bring doom to the once-Grand Old Party.