Rothenberg’s Best & Worst of 2019 Year-End Awards

It’s December, and that means it’s time for another of my “Best & Worst of the Year” columns. And since it has been a pretty awful year, there should be a lot of worsts.

As always, I’ll offer a set of nominees for each category. Then I’ll pick my winner. But you too can play along at home by selecting your choices. If you disagree with me, I really don’t care. Amuse yourselves, and send any complaints about my categories or my “winners” to Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia.

Most obnoxious Republican member of Congress

The nominees:

  • Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida
  • Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio
  • Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas
  • Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas
  • Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York

My winner: So now you know how difficult this can be to pick only one. It’s really a matter of personal preference.

Louie Gohmert is, well, Louie Gohmert, and that’s sort of sad, so maybe we ought to give him a break and eliminate him.

For me, this category comes down to Gaetz and Jordon, both of whom are incredibly smug.

I think I’m going with Jordan because he won’t wear a jacket and yells too much for my taste.

But I can’t argue with you if you picked Gaetz.

Most annoying Democratic member of Congress/Faux Democrat

The nominees:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York

My winner: I’m going with Ocasio-Cortez, who never passes up an opportunity to inject herself into controversy.

Bernie comes in right behind her because he takes himself way too seriously.

Biggest political tongue-twister of 2019

The nominees:

The winner: Quid pro Buttigieg

Most predictive Democratic electoral performance in 2019

The nominees:

  • Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s reelection
  • Andy Beshear’s victory in the Kentucky governor’s race
  • Virginia Democrats win both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly
  • Republican Dan Bishop’s 51 percent to 49 percent victory in the special election in North Carolina’s 9th District

The winner: This isn’t close. Virginia, where the results reinforced the narrative about suburban voters and add to questions about President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects.

Kentucky was mostly about what a jerk Matt Bevin is, and Louisiana showed only that an anti-abortion, pro-gun rights conservative can win in the Pelican State. Few Democrats will be running on that message in 2020.

Most frustrating allegedly “moderate” or “nonpartisan” person of the year

The nominees:

  • Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins
  • Stuart Rothenberg
  • Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III
  • New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik

My winner: Well, Stefanik turns out to be a Trump robot, so she is out of consideration.

For me, the choice comes down to either Collins or Mueller.

I’ll go with Collins, I think, because she is a member of Congress and has built a career on being a moderate who bolts her party.

Mueller remains merely a disappointment.

Worst presidential campaign of 2019

The nominees:

  • California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris
  • Former South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford
  • Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke
  • Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The winner: An interesting category with some competitive nominees.

Harris battled criticism of her campaign for months before dropping out, while Sanford was barely in the GOP race before he ended his bid.

O’Rourke saw his stock plummet early on and never recovered, while Bloomberg hemmed and hawed before finally getting in late.

I’m going (surprisingly) with Bloomberg, who really has no “campaign” even now. What he has is a national media buy.

Worst political coiffeur

The nominees:

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
  • Stuart Rothenberg
  • President Donald Trump
  • The late Rep. Jim Traficant (perennial nominee)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden

The winner: It all depends on the meaning of the word “worst.”

Most likely to be “Anonymous”

The nominees:

  • White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway
  • George Conway, husband of above
  • Kellyanne Conway and George Conway
  • Some guy you’ve never heard of
  • First lady Melania Trump

The winner: I’m not at liberty to tell you.

Presidential sycophant of the year

The nominees:

  • Vice President Mike Pence
  • Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
  • Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani
  • Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy
  • Acting White House Chief of Staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney

The winner: Congrats! A five-way tie!

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on December 10, 2019.

One Year Until the Most Important Election in American History

While it feels as if we’ve all been watching the 2020 race for years, it’s still 12 months until voters decide whether or not to give President Donald Trump a second term.

Given the president’s performance during his first term and his opportunities to cement and then expand those changes in another four years, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the 2020 election is the most important one in our nation’s history. No wonder there is so much early attention on Trump’s reelection prospects.

Our friends at Moody’s Analytics have once again produced a presidential election model to tell us who is going to win the White House next year. Like virtually all nonpartisan professional handicappers (including myself), Moody’s predicted days before the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably.

Moody’s economists have tinkered with their methodology and produced a mixed bag of changes. Some of the changes are welcome, including multiple turnout models that reflect the importance of who actually votes and the difficulty pollsters have in gauging turnout.

Moody’s also now offers three different presidential election models, which presumably increases their chances of being right. Unfortunately, all three treat presidential elections as contests between two generic nominees, completely discounting noneconomic factors, to say nothing of the candidates’ personalities. That may have been a reasonable way to proceed in the days before Trump entered the White House, but, as the 2018 midterms demonstrated, it’s not always “the economy, stupid.”

The politics components in the models (as opposed to the economic components) strike me as strange.

Yes, past state electoral results are crucially important in predicting future state electoral behavior. But the models reward Trump because they assume “Democrats and Democrat-leaning independent voters are more likely to switch sides and vote for a Republican candidate than vice versa.” In other words, more Clinton voters are going to vote for Trump in 2020 than will Trump voters for the Democratic nominee. I see no reason to expect that to be the case next year.

In addition, instead of factoring presidential job approval into their analysis, the folks at Moody’s Analytics are concerned only with how much Trump’s job approval has fluctuated. As they write, “Trump’s approval rating has, at most, oscillated not much more than 10 percentage points. As a result, our approval rating variable does not penalize the president as much as it has previous candidates.” So, Trump’s job approval ratings — which have largely ranged from the mid-30s to the lower 40s — matter less than how much they change?

The fundamental problem with the analysis, which seems to have been directed by chief economist Mark Zandi, who always sounds thoughtful when I hear him talking about economics and business, is that it fails to acknowledge how our politics has changed since Trump started running for president.

Economics mattered less than usual in the 2018 midterms because Trump’s style, language and agenda have been so controversial. His policies and personal behavior turned off some voters who supported him in 2016, which is why the GOP suffered a stunning net loss of 40 seats during improving economic times. Swing voters cared less about the unemployment rate and stock market than about health care, gun control, global warming and Trump’s divisiveness, meanness, crudeness and mendaciousness.

Economic variables have been important predictors of presidential elections in the past (and will remain so in the future), but we have never had a president like Trump. Acting as though he won’t be a factor in 2020 is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Oddly, the president has never sought to expand his electoral coalition. Instead, he plays solely to his political base in rural America, among white evangelicals, with self-identified conservatives, and with working-class whites without a college degree.

That coalition got him 46 percent of the vote in 2016, which was enough to win only because of demographic patterns in three Great Lakes states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — allowed him to squeak to an Electoral College victory.

Trump is once again limited to the states he won in 2016 (plus possibly Nevada, New Hampshire and Minnesota) to put together another winning coalition while losing the national popular vote. Meanwhile, he will be on the defensive in the three Great Lakes states he won narrowly, plus in North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, and possibly even Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.

Changes in key electoral groups between 2016 and 2019 also present problems for Trump. As the midterms showed — and polling conducted since then has confirmed — he has lost ground with younger voters, college-educated whites, suburbanites and especially white women with a college degree.

Finally, Trump’s prospects depend to a considerable extent on the Democrats — on whom they nominate, how united they are and how energized the party’s constituencies are. Some Democratic tickets would have a better chance of mobilizing the party base and reaching out to swing voters than others. In other words, candidates and campaigns still matter.

Trump’s path to a second term rests on larger losses in the popular vote and narrower victories in a few states with crucial electoral votes. That is a possible scenario, but hardly one that should leave Republicans brimming with confidence.

The president has damaged himself by alienating large chunks of the country, and his behavior over the next year is likely to give Democrats more ammunition to use against him. The only question is whether the Democrats will find a nominee who can take advantage of Trump’s fundamental weaknesses.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 5, 2019.

Would Everyone Please Shut Up for 48 hours?

It’s language I try not to use, but would everyone please shut up for a while?

How about two days? That’s not too much to ask, is it?

The accusations and finger-pointing are getting out of hand. And tiring. And depressing. And divisive.

Maybe the cable TV folks could do something to change the tone of our national discussion by showing only animal videos for a couple of days. Or maybe cooking shows.

How about temporarily canceling CNN and MSNBC panels about how crazy Donald Trump is and what a puppet of Vladimir Putin he is? (Not that both things couldn’t be true.)

Maybe both networks could report some news — about something other than the Trump administration. BBC says there’s news about Brexit. And I’m betting something is happening in South America and India that is worth my attention.

As for Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs and Laura Ingraham, maybe they could tape their mouths shut for 48 hours. That would both improve the content of their programs and make them look less foolish defending Trump’s ridiculous statements and ill-advised foreign policy decisions.

Oh, and Adam Schiff, could you please take a couple of days off and go to a beach in the Caribbean, promising not to utter a word in English during your trip?

I’d appreciate it if Hillary Clinton and Tulsi Gabbard could stop some of the unbecoming bickering for a couple of days. Hillary, what the hell were you thinking? And of course, Tulsi couldn’t resist ratcheting up the rhetoric by firing back at Clinton.

The result was a wholly unnecessary fight that served nobody’s interest — except the opponents of democracy and civility. Now, who could that be?

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said there was a quid pro quo regarding Ukraine before he said that there was no quid pro quo.

By the way, do we all need to start learning Latin to understand cable television shows? Will the next CNN interview go something like this?

Erin Burnett: Welcome, Mr. Mulvaney. Quid pro quo?

Mulvaney: Yes, quo. No quo. Quid pro quo.

Burnett: Carpe diem.

Mulvaney: Et tu, Brute?

Burnett: In vino veritas.

Mulvaney: Nil desperandum.

Burnett: Caveat emptor. And thank you, Mr. Mulvaney.

I’m pretty certain I can’t get 48 hours, but could we please have one full day when any time a reporter mentions the Kurds, he or she also has to mention “whey”? At least that might make me laugh.

I know, the slaughter of the Syrian Kurds is nothing to laugh or joke about. It’s terrible. How dare I make light of something so horrible.

Excuse me, but could you lighten up for 24 hours? Instead of being offended by everything, talk about baseball, the beautiful fall weather, pumpkin pie or even HBO’s “Succession,” a really smart (and often funny) television show featuring a lead character who is a billionaire megalomaniac and narcissist with a corrupt family that runs a major media company.

I’d really like it if Trump could stop telling untruths for 48 hours — even if that means he has to do something to make sure he doesn’t move his lips for two whole days.

I know it’s unreasonable to ask the president to clean up his language and try to tell the truth for TWO WHOLE DAYS!!!!!

That would be quite a challenge for anyone with such an extreme personality disorder, especially a narcissist who thinks everything in the universe revolves around him.

But try, Donald, please.

Maybe you could play board games with your children. Or revitalize the State Department. Or get some therapy.

I’d appreciate it if I could get a day or two without Rudy Giuliani. Just because, well, if you’ve seen Rudy recently, you know why.

I could almost wax poetic about HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who knows so little about his own department and is so busy keeping his head down that he has gone mute.

Thank you, Ben, wherever you are and whatever you are doing (probably picking out more new furniture for your office).

A little more than a year ago, during the final week of September 2018, I wrote a column titled “I’m just tired of it all.” And I was.

Trump’s presidency was draining and debilitating, full of mean-spirited accusations, name-calling and controversy.

But here’s the problem: Things have only gotten worse since then. I’m more “tired of it all” a year later — tired of the daily controversies and the president’s outlandish tweets.

I didn’t think that was even possible.

Each morning I get out of bed knowing that the new day will only be worse than the day before. More chaos. More lies. More chatter in the media. More cable news panels with people saying the same things they said the day before.

More lunacy from the president of the United States who — whether at campaign rallies, press conferences or Q&A’s with the media as he’s leaving the White House — seems unable to put two coherent sentences together. More wins for Russia and Putin.

But no matter Trump’s shortcomings (and they are many), my request for a national timeout isn’t partisan. Both sides could use one, as could the country. And a bourbon. Or two. Just give me a couple of days to recover.

Then you can all return to the chatter, chaos, mind-numbing arguments, “what about” retorts and sometimes vulgar, belittling and demeaning attacks and counterattacks.

Please.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 22, 2019.

Why Working-class Whites Aren’t Giving Up on Trump

“In some countries working-class groups have proved to be the most nationalistic and jingoistic sector of the population,” wrote the highly esteemed sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset — 60 years ago last month.

In his seminal article “Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism,” which appeared in the August 1959 issue of the American Sociological Review, Lipset observed that many in the working class were “in the forefront of the struggle against equal rights for minority groups, and have sought to limit immigration or to impose racial standards in countries with open immigration.”

“The social situation of the lower strata, particularly in poorer countries with low levels of education,” he argued, “predisposes them to view politics in simplistic and chiliastic terms of black and white, good and evil. Consequently, other things being equal, they should be more likely than other strata to prefer extremist movements which suggest easy and quick solutions to social problems and have a rigid outlook rather than those which view the problem of reform or change in complex and gradualist terms and which support rational values of tolerance.”

Lipset’s analysis in that article, which I discovered after reading Jordan Michael Smith’s piece “Who Are Trump’s Supporters” in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, obviously resonates today, both internationally (with the rise of populism in Europe) and in Donald Trump’s America.

Trump’s comments and tweets that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” that Mexico will “pay for the wall,” and that he knows more about ISIS “than the generals do” are just a few examples of his simplistic messages that have resonated with white working-class voters.

When he said during his 2016 Republican National Convention speech in Cleveland that, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” Trump was echoing other authoritarians, who, like him, tore up treaties, portrayed previous leaders as incompetent or worse, and undermined long-established institutions, including the independent press. Only he, said Trump, could save the country.

The behavior of white, working-class Americans in 2016 and since has seemingly confirmed Lipset’s assessment. This demographic has embraced Trump’s authoritarian style, his criticism of key institutions and his culturally conservative agenda, including on abortion, immigration and gay rights.

Trump’s rallies, with cheers of “Lock her up” and threats to the media, are hardly a testament to tolerance.

Culture wars

Cultural issues remain a major part of our national political debate, and they were a major reason why Trump won the White House in 2016, which must surprise veteran analyst Ruy Teixeira, a thoughtful observer of American politics.

A decade ago, in his July 15, 2009 article “The Coming End of the Culture Wars,” Teixeira announced that the so-called culture wars, “far from coming back (after the Obama presidency) are likely coming to an end as a defining aspect of our politics.”

The issues around which the war was waged — women’s issues, gay rights, abortion and immigration — allegedly were fading into obscurity as younger, more tolerant voters were replacing socially conservative white working-class voters in the electorate.

“Ongoing demographic shifts have seriously eroded the mass base for culture wars politics and will continue to erode this base in the future,” he wrote, adding that “the advantage conservatives can gain from culture wars politics will steadily diminish and, consequently, so will conservatives’ incentive to engage in such politics.”

Teixeira, like many of us (myself included), got the trend right but the timing very wrong.

Yes, generational change has changed the makeup of the electorate and lessened the importance of white voters without a college degree, who have been declining as a proportion of the electorate.

But that didn’t mean that those voters couldn’t join in 2016 with others — including suburban college-educated whites, evangelicals and rural voters — to elect Donald Trump.

In fact, Trump beat Hillary Clinton among whites with a college degree (48 percent to 45 percent), and he and Clinton evenly split (47 percent each) respondents with an income of at least $100,000 a year.

But he carried Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, in part, because he added working-class white voters without a college degree to a Republican coalition that included swing voters.

Still a force

Teixeira’s biggest mistake was in thinking that conservatives would give up the fight on cultural issues.

Not only did they not give up, they doubled down on their resistance to change. And at a time of dissatisfaction with politics and politicians, they found a champion who told them what they wanted to hear.

The cultural and economic divisions that Lipset found 60 years ago are still very apparent today. Democratic appeals to woo downscale white voters back to the party of Franklin Roosevelt on issues like minimum wage, jobs, and economic fairness and equality have had limited success because those voters continue to respond to cultural issues — and candidates with authoritarian styles and simplistic messages.

It’s no wonder that white, working-class Americans are still in the president’s corner — and why, unless a strong economic downturn refocuses their attention on economic issues, they will remain devoted fans.

But in the long run — and as long as cultural issues remain a deep divide in the country — it is difficult to see those voters finding a comfortable place in a Democratic Party that places such a high value on tolerance and diversity in general, and on issues like global climate change, women’s rights and racial inequality, in particular.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on September 10, 2019.

How Third-Party Votes Sunk Clinton, What They Mean For Trump

For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.

An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.

Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.

Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.

Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.

In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerrycombined for 99 percent of the popular vote.

Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.

But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.

Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.

Breaking down the votes

Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.

The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.

The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.

But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.

Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.

While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.

The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.

Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).

Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.

Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.

At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.

Major-party baggage

Elsewhere, the same thing happened.

In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.

In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.

Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.

But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.

Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.

In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.

Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.

On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.

What it means for 2020

In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.

That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.

On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.

Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.

But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.

While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.

She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.

And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.

Republicans Want an Election About Socialism. They Likely Won’t Get One

If there was any doubt congressional Republicans want to make the 2020 election about something other than President Donald Trump, look no further than the House GOP’s campaign chairman.

“Republicans will make 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom, NRCC Chair Emmer says, w starring role for AOC & Squad as ‘Speaker in fact,’ & rest of Democrats as the ‘new Red Army,’” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted last week about National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer.

That’s not a complete surprise, of course, since Republican candidates, officeholders and strategists have appeared intent for months to transform the 2020 elections from a referendum on Trump into a referendum on socialism.

Even before Emmer’s chat with reporters last week at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, in which he said “This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” the Minnesota Republican had signaled his intentions in an op-ed for Roll Call.

“After 100 days of accomplishing nothing but tax increases and bad headlines, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives boldly proclaimed her socialist Democratic caucus have the 2020 elections in the bag. Her faux confidence is misplaced; the past three months for her band of socialists were disastrous,” he wrote on April 15.

But one side doesn’t dictate what an election is going to be about, and you can be pretty certain that most Democratic strategists want the 2020 elections to be a referendum on the president’s character, judgment, integrity and priorities.

And since Trump occupies the highest and most powerful elected office in the land, it’s easier to make next year’s elections about him than about a handful of freshman members of Congress.

Democratic message

If Democrats are going to run on any “ism,” it’s probably going to be the alleged “racism” of the president and his party, a message that should have considerable appeal among minorities, progressives and college-educated swing voters.

Last cycle, Republicans spent time and resources trying to make the 2018 midterms about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They failed — as I suggested they would in a Feb. 21, 2018, column — because the leader of the minority party in the House simply isn’t seen as running the country.

With Trump in the news daily and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans never had a chance to make 2018 “about” Pelosi.

As I wrote last year, Republican campaign operatives didn’t have many options in their effort to hold the House, so I could understand the strategy. But that didn’t mean that it was likely to be successful.

This cycle, Pelosi and the Democrats control the House, so at least the NRCC can plausibly label her responsible for the nation’s ills and Trump’s failures.

Plus, some Democrats on the party’s left have become more vocal about moving their party in a more progressive direction, which plays into GOP hands next year.

But most voters don’t see the speaker of the House — or the Senate majority leader, for that matter — as dictating the direction of the country. They think of the president as in control.

That’s particularly likely to be the case when the incumbent president has a large personality, dominates the news and is inherently controversial, either because of his policies or his character and personality. And that description fits Trump perfectly.

Presidential contests are part referendum on the occupant of the Oval Office and part choice between the two parties’ nominees. But Trump’s personality and profile enhance the chance that 2020 is more about him than about anyone else.

All about the nominee

Of course, Emmer’s (and the White House’s) strategy is more likely to be effective if Democrats nominate someone for the presidency who can more easily be portrayed as a radical, and particularly as a socialist.

The most obvious example is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced the “democratic socialist” label over the years. But even Sanders currently leads Trump in national ballot tests.

But can’t Republicans use the high profiles of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — a.k.a. “the squad” — to define the entire Democratic Party, as well as the party’s national ticket?

Probably not, though it may be worth a shot given the paucity of other options available to GOP strategists.

The small band of controversial, progressive Democratic women might be able to keep themselves in the limelight if they make an effort so do so next year, which would play right into Republican hands.

But they almost certainly are too junior to become the face of their party, even though they receive an inordinate share of national media coverage now.

By next fall, almost all of the media’s attention will be on the presidential contest — and particularly on the two presidential nominees.

That’s why the Democratic presidential nomination is so crucial to Trump and Emmer’s strategy.

Trump will likely continue to use the squad as punching bags if he needs to (and he will), but most voters will see 2020 as a clear choice between him and his Democratic opponent, especially if Democrats nominate someone who wants to occupy the political center during the general election campaign.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 23, 2019 issue of Roll Call.