The Steyer Boomlet

Once again, there’s a new “hot” candidate. This time it’s billionaire Tom Steyer, who hit double digits in new Fox News polls in Nevada and South Carolina, thereby qualifying him for Tuesday’s CNN/Des Moines Register presidential debate — the last debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Of course, other surveys show Steyer in the low-to-middle single digits in the first two states with Democratic contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, and weak showings in those two states could affect his standing in the subsequent state contests.

The reason the Democratic former hedge fund founder is anywhere in any poll on this planet is that he has spent millions of dollars in advertising, first to promote the impeachment of President Donald Trump and now his own candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Steyer has so far spent more money on his campaign than all of the other candidates combined except for Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who like Steyer is trying to buy the Democratic nomination.

If the Fox News numbers in Nevada and South Carolina are correct, they would at the very least suggest that Steyer could be mucking up the Democratic contest, adding yet another dose of uncertainty to an already uncertain race.

Some Democrats are still looking for a perfect candidate to defeat Trump, and a billionaire liberal businessman who says the entire system is “broken” might be appealing to some.

But, of course, there is plenty of reason to believe that this Steyer boomlet isn’t very meaningful and that if and when Democrats look at him at greater length, they’ll find him unappealing as the party’s standard-bearer in November.

Poll factor

Up to this point, the Democratic front-runners have ignored Steyer, but if they see him as a real factor in the race, he’ll get much more attention from them — and from the national media, in general, and the Iowa debate moderators, in particular.

Where did he get all his money? What businesses and companies did he invest in?

For a party that seems uncomfortable with millionaires and billionaires, Steyer would be a strange choice.

Yes, he can say that he has spent his money for good causes and to fix the system, but he is still a billionaire who is trying to buy the nomination.

Like Trump, Steyer thinks that government is broken and that only a radical remake of the country — its laws and the Constitution — will make the system open to the people.

One of Steyer’s wackier proposals involves his support for term limits. “You and I both know we need term limits … that Congress shouldn’t be a lifetime appointment,” he says in one TV spot that he rolled out in November to air in the four February states. “But members of Congress — and the corporations who’ve bought our democracy — hate term limits. Too bad.”

Much like Trump, who throws words around as if they have no fixed meaning, Steyer must know that members of Congress aren’t “appointed” and that they don’t serve for a lifetime, unless the voters continue to reelect them every two or six years, depending on the chamber.

They certainly don’t have a “lifetime appointment,” the way federal judges do. Moreover, where is the evidence that corporations “hate term limits?”

One of the reasons why limiting terms is such a bad idea — it was bad when conservatives promoted them as a way to create more open seats when they were in the minority, and it is a bad idea now that a liberal Democratic hopeful is proposing them — is that term limits would empower unelected Hill staffers and lobbyists, who would be the only people to understand the details of legislation and have policy expertise.

House members wouldn’t be in Congress long enough to become experts in most matters of public policy.

Trump 2.0

Steyer reminds me a lot of Trump. He’s never held elective office but thinks that he is his party’s — and the country’s — political savior.

Everything is broken. Everything is corrupt. Let’s throw everything out and start over. Representative government? Forget it. Let’s have a national referendum on issues (thereby empowering those who can dominate the airwaves during the national discussion leading up to the referendum).

From a purely handicapping point of view, I’m skeptical that Steyer has much staying power in the race. His anti-establishment, liberal message of the evils of corporations will resonate with some, but many of those Democrats already have their favorites (such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).

And once the media and the other Democrats turn their fire on Steyer — if they ever do — he’ll have to spend time on the defensive answering questions. That’s not an ideal situation for a billionaire former hedge fund founder running for the Democratic nomination.

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 January 13, 2020.

How Can the GOP Turn Out Trump Voters?

In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.

Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.

Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?

One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”

That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.

He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.

Firing up the base

Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.

Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.

Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.

Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?

“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.

Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”

These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.

There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.

Making lemonade

Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.

Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.

“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.

Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”

But things aren’t quite that clear.

Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.

Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.