Will Trump Go Negative? Just Kidding …

There is no need to speculate about President Donald Trump’s strategy for reelection. He plans to — and needs to — destroy his general election opponent.

That’s the only way an incumbent president with a job approval rating in the low 40s and sitting at 40 percent in hypothetical ballot tests can possibly win.

Trump loves the combat and the name-calling. It wouldn’t matter if the Democrats nominated Mother Teresa (were she still alive). Trump would mock her, give her a demeaning nickname, portray her as selfish and self-centered, and brand her a phony. That’s what Trump does.

But don’t take my word for it. It was his wife, Melania Trump, who told a crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2016, “As you may know by now, when you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder. No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.”

“Equal,” as in equally nasty.

Politics can be a rough game. I get it. I’ve been covering campaigns for the last 40 years. No, politics ain’t beanbag.

But in the old days, political dirt was shoveled under cover of darkness, circulated by whispering campaigns or anonymous handouts left on car windshields on Sunday mornings.

Trump has taken negativity to a new level.

He delivers the attacks himself, often during rallies or press events. So whether the Democrats nominate Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock, John Delaney or someone else, you can be sure that Trump and his allies will run the same slash-and-burn campaign they did in 2016.

Something on everyone

There are no flawless candidates this year or any year. Democrats shouldn’t be looking for one.

Obviously, some Democrats are carrying more baggage than others.

Sanders’ embrace of socialism, for example, may earn him points for being frank, but it’s a considerable liability in a general election.

Biden’s son Hunter’s membership on the board of a Ukrainian energy company is also a liability for his father, though not one so serious that it would define the former vice president’s candidacy.

We don’t now know what opposition research Trump has on each of the Democratic candidates, but Democrats would be wise to assume he has something on everyone — and if he doesn’t, he’ll just make something up, as he has done in the past.

He is, after all, trying to muddy the waters so that he wins a chunk of voters who don’t like him but dislike his opponent even more.

Remember, Trump won the 2016 election even though he had worse ratings that Hillary Clinton, according to that year’s exit poll.

Forty-three percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Clinton, compared to 55 percent who saw her unfavorably. Trump’s rating was measurably worse at 38 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable.

A solid 55 percent of respondents said Clinton had the right temperament to be president, while only 35 percent said the same of Trump. And while 52 percent of those polled said Clinton was “qualified to serve as president,” only 38 percent said Trump was qualified.

Clinton even bested Trump, albeit very narrowly, when it came to honesty and trustworthiness. Only one in three respondents said Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” while 36 percent said that that description applied to Clinton, who was carrying years of political baggage.

Given all of those numbers, Clinton should have won the election comfortably. But she didn’t, in part because many voters didn’t trust her, eight years of Barack Obama produced an anti-Democratic fatigue, and a slice of voters were so frustrated with unfulfilled promises that they took a flier on an outsider they hoped could change the trajectory of the country in a positive way.

Even if many voters had doubts about Trump — even if it was a gamble to vote for someone unqualified and with the wrong temperament — wasn’t it worth the risk, given the alternative?

Four years later

Trump’s problem is that the rhetorical question he asked of black voters in 2016 — “What do you have to lose?” — now has a different answer for many voters (regardless of race) than it did four years ago.

He will continue to run against the establishment, the Deep State, the national media, Obama, Clinton and his eventual Democratic opponent. But unlike 2016, when voters could vote for Trump in the hope that he would become “more presidential” and would “grow” into the office, those voters now see that the exact opposite has occurred.

And while millions of Americans who still support the president may like his political incorrectness and the chaos he produces on a daily basis, some of those 2016 supporters won’t want to stomach another four years of disarray and insanity. It is simply too fatiguing.

So the president has no option but to drive his opponent’s negatives higher. That means attacks on his or her character, judgment, health, integrity, intellect, family members, friends, business associates and personal behavior.

And yes, Trump will brand him or her a socialist who wants open borders and gun confiscation, and who supports closing all houses of worship, destroying the U.S. military, bankrupting the country and letting rapists and murderers run free.

And he’ll probably do all that before the end of September. Just imagine what the last month before Election Day will be like.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 15, 2019.

Will the Supreme Court Save the GOP from Itself on Abortion?

Social conservatives cheering the rash of state laws limiting legal abortion might want to be careful what they wish for.

That’s because Democratic prospects for 2020 are likely to improve as uncertainty about the future of Roe v. Wade grows. And uncertainty will grow as more and more states impose restrictions on legal abortion.

Republicans need a net gain of 18 or 19 seats to win back the House — a difficult task but certainly not an impossible one. And the party can lose a net of three Senate seats (if they keep the White House) and still maintain control of the chamber in 2021.

But magnifying the debate over abortion rights could well put the House out of reach next year for the GOP, put the Senate at much greater risk and further undermine President Donald Trump’s already iffy re-election prospects.

New motivation

Democrats’ successes in 2018 were built on two very different groups — core party supporters, including progressives, minorities and younger Americans; and swing voters, including college-educated whites (especially college-educated white women), who have often been attracted by the GOP’s stances on taxes, spending and business regulation.

Both sets of voters turned out for Democratic House candidates last fall, which is why Democrats gained a net of 40 seats in the chamber.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the same two groups are likely to be motivated by the abortion issue in 2020.

Women went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 13 points in 2016, 54 percent to 41 percent, largely on the basis of her strength among non-whites. Two years later, the national House exit poll showed Democrats carrying women by an even larger 19 points, 59 percent to 40 percent.

Trump actually carried white women comfortably by 9 points in 2016, 52 percent to 43 percent. Two years later, white women split evenly, 49 percent to 49 percent, wiping out the president’s advantage.

College-educated white women went for Clinton in 2016 by a relatively narrow 7 points, 51 percent to 44 percent. But two years later, Democrats won white women with a college degree by an overwhelming 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent.

The Democratic surge among college-educated white women was unmistakable, and it did not occur by chance.

White women in general, and college-educated white women in particular, came to dislike Trump’s style and language, as well as elements of his agenda.

Now, with the economy generally strong and swing voters free to think about things other than jobs and interest rates, college-educated women who supported Trump in 2016 but voted Democratic two years later will again feel free to send a message about culture and values, not taxes and government regulation.

The last word?

Obviously, a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would further elevate abortion as a defining issue in 2020, giving more energy to the abortion rights movement.

Conversely, a Supreme Court decision reaffirming Roe and rejecting the constitutionality of the kind of restrictions on abortion that states are now imposing might actually breed complacency among those who support abortion rights.

But it’s unclear when or whether the nation’s highest court will deal with new state restrictions on abortion before next year’s general election. Given that, supporters of abortion rights are likely to focus on the more “extreme” proposals that seek to circumscribe Roe, just as critics of Roe — including the folks at LifeNews.com — have often portrayed abortion rights activists as supporting infanticide.

The problem for Republicans is that they are likely to go into the 2020 election dragged down by an issue on which they are too easily portrayed as extreme and insensitive to women.

Yes, they will have their arguments assembled as to why that is not the case, but the bigger the issue becomes, the more likely 2020 becomes a fight over culture and values that benefits Democrats, not the party of white evangelicals and white men without a college degree.

Historically, Republicans have benefited from abortion because of the intensity of the support from those who oppose legal abortion. Even though polls generally show more voters back abortion rights, those people don’t vote on the issue, as is illustrated by polling on abortion and Roe v. Wade by Gallup.

The increased salience of abortion as a voting cue is likely to benefit Democrats because it will energize voters who favor abortion rights but have assumed up to now that they are not under serious attack.

The greatest danger for Democrats is that a John Roberts-led Supreme Courts reaffirms Roe and looks unkindly on state restrictions intended to dramatically limit, or eliminate, legal abortion in some states.

That would be a loss on public policy for Republicans going into 2020, but it would be the better electoral outcome for the party.

Note: This column appeared initially in the May 21, 2019 issue of Roll Call.