By Howell Raines
As a one-trick politician, President Donald Trump doesn’t understand that his old game is over and a new one has begun — one with new power players and realigned personal loyalties and individual ambitions. And most dangerously for his hopes of a second term, a Democratic House means a newly energized agenda of issues that won’t allow him to stick his head in the sand.
The moment new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was sworn in, the fact that Trump clearly does not know beans about how Washington works quit being an asset and became a campaign-year virus that could kill his presidential hopes in 2020. Whether Trump is playing dumb or being dumb, it comes to the same thing. Operationally, he is oblivious to both the fratricidal Republican intrigues and the Democratic policy siege about to hit his White House.
Whether Trump is playing dumb or being dumb, it comes to the same thing. Operationally, he is oblivious.
Meanwhile, the Trump re-election team is nearly invisible, and his two chief defenders, Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, have exhausted their voices and the public’s appetite for hearing them.
The poor fellow’s troubles are going to come in waves now, freshman Sen. Mitt Romney being only the first rivalrous Republican likely to start angling for his party’s nomination next year. And not withstanding Trump’s simpering attempt to sweet talk “Nancy,” the negotiator-in-chief has no frame of reference for the fusillade of legislation that Pelosi is about to call down.
As their January 2 meeting showed, no one in Trump’s “acting” Cabinet seems to have the gumption to even shout, “Incoming!” If national security and the social fabric were not so imperiled on a daily basis, one would be inclined to pity this man who saidhe can’t reopen the government because it would make him look bad. Given the president’s grasp of history, he surely doesn’t know he has already surpassed the blundering James Buchanan and the dimwitted Warren G. Harding as the most clueless president in history.
All that said, the start of the new Congress seems like a good time to itemize what awaits Trump. The Democratic House and the party’s ever-expanding 2020 primary roster mean that even in a time of legislative gridlock, the news will be dominated — month after month and with increasing volume — by growing progressive thunder on income equality, middle-class tax cuts, gun control, immigration outrages, NATO instability and, of course, Robert Mueller's investigation.
From a publicity standpoint, Trump held his own in 2017 and the first months of 2018, mostly by eschewing traditional forms of communicating with the public for campaign-style rallies with his base. But that tactic will feel shopworn in 2019 — even if he had brilliant defenders on Capitol Hill (which he doesn’t). House Minority’s Leader Kevin McCarthy and his Tea Party are becoming an extinct volcano. Affectless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is tongue-tied by his own historical conundrum: Will he be remembered as Trump’s spineless enabler or a conviction conservative who fights for the decorous legacy of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan.
The end of majority government means that, at the very least, the GOP will have to abandon its "I can’t hear you" strategy that flouts public opinion.
Now, let’s consider the likely future of the dog-wagging Trump “base.” Trump is facing the reality of being a minority president who lost the popular vote and now has to worry about his true believers. The most riveting public-opinion tidbit I heard during the holidays came from a retired dentist in Alabama’s most elite retirement community, moss-draped Point Clear on Mobile Bay. He reported that his social set of educated, mainstream Republicans no longer support Trump’s handling of his office. That doesn’t mean Alabama will go blue, but it was defections among such traditional Republicans that resulted in the state electing Doug Jones in 2018 as its first Democratic senator in almost three decades.
The comment points to a fault line in the Republican electorate that Democrats can hammer relentlessly. And again, the Trump administration no longer has the luxury of being defiantly unresponsive to reasonable alternatives. The policy agenda guided by the 40 new Democrats in the House and the Democratic presidential candidates will have to be addressed. Given Trump’s track record, he may find it beneath him to respond to such a muscular opposition, but GOP Congressmen running for re-election won't be able to dodge engagement.
For example, 28 percent of newly elected Democratic House members who won in Republican strongholds have already endorsed “Medicare for All,” including Florida's Donna Shalala, Georgia's Lucy McBath and Mike Levine in California. Odds are that one or more presidential hopefuls will make it a platform centerpiece. The collapse of the repeal Obamacare movement sets the stage for a successful referendum election on universal health care. And McConnell et al must face the question of whether the GOP can survive another national election with a just-say-no strategy on health care.
This is just one of several issues where sheer Trumpian recalcitrance conflicts with demographics and opinion polls. The Republican strategy of science-denialism on global warming has been, so to speak, inundated by storms, flooded streets in Miami and the cumulative impact of non-crackpot scientific experts. My guess is that the middle class no longer supports the rights of civilians to purchase military weapons for use in schools, churches and shopping centers. And my non-scientific survey among fishermen, hunters, campers, bicyclists and hikers in my largely exurban neighborhoods in Alabama and Pennsylvania convinces me that non-ideological Republicans do not believe President Richard Nixon’s historic legislation improving air and water quality should be rolled back.
A lifetime of covering elective politics has made me doubtful about the Democrats’ ability to outline and promote common-sense positions that don’t require voters to sign-up mentally for sweeping reforms. But no Republican president since 1900 has opened more doors for opportunistic campaigning by his opponents.
Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the Democrats have, for the most part, failed to reach middle class voters who ought to oppose the GOP’s redistribution of wealth to the richest taxpayers, Wall Street, banks and the corporations. Millions of voters, not without reason, believe that the Democrats have been brain-dead since the New Deal. So the question for 2020 is whether Donald Trump, the accidental president who has destroyed Republican tradition, has also inspired the Democrats to start a conversation Republicans can no longer afford to ignore.
Howell Raines was executive editor of The New York Times from 2001-2003, editorial page editor from 19903-2001, and prior to that Washington editor, national political correspondent, and London bureau chief. Raines won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1993 for an article on coming of age in segregated Birmingham.
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.