There is a saying attributed to various wise men: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” Allow me to tempt fate and offer some musings about the 2020 election and America’s democratic future.
I will be amazed if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. The water around him is rising fast, and he is likely to be long gone by 2020, either via impeachment or resignation in a deal that spares him prosecution.
Trump’s Sunday morning tweet admitted that a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving campaign aides and a Kremlin-linked lawyer was designed to “get information on an opponent.”
The tweet undercut a lie that Donald Trump Jr. told in July 2017 when he said that the meeting had been primarily about the adoption of Russian children. That lie was cooked up in close consultation with Trump senior.
In a recent New Yorker post, Adam Davidson details just how Trump’s “no collusion” story has fallen apart, in part due to his own impulsive failure to keep his lies straight.
As Davidson summarizes it:
The President’s son and top advisers knowingly met with individuals connected to the Russian government, hoping to obtain dirt on their political opponent.
Documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee and members of the Clinton campaign were later used in an overt effort to sway the election.
When the Trump Tower meeting was uncovered, the President instructed his son and staff to lie about the meeting, and told them precisely which lies to use.
The President is attempting to end the investigation into this meeting and other instances of attempted collusion between his campaign staff and representatives of the Russian government.
All of this is more than enough to justify an obstruction of justice charge, a prime ground for impeachment. And it should be more than enough to cause Republican defenders to distance themselves from Trump. As special counsel Robert Mueller ferrets out more and more detail, a panicky Trump gets crazier and crazier. He will likely do himself in.
When Trump goes, don’t expect Vice President Mike Pence to be the 2020 nominee either. Pence is a famously inept politician, who was on track to be defeated for re-election as the Republican governor of Indiana — quite a trick.
The hardcore Trump base will be furious if (when) Trump is forced out. If Pence succeeds Trump, there will be a free-for-all, with some candidates running as the true successor to Trump and others trying to reclaim a sane Republican Party.
The latter could include moderates John Kasich, governor of Ohio, who is already positioning himself for a run; Maryland governor Larry Hogan; and Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker. Their claim to success is that they got elected as Republicans in normally Democratic states. Their problem is that the electorate in Republican primaries is far to their right.
The former could include any number of frothing at the mouth members of the House Freedom Caucus, plus of course Pence. So my bet is that the Republican nominee will be someone other than Trump, and will be presiding over a badly fractured party. What a gift to Democrats!
The entire Democratic pack is running to the left, because that’s where the grassroots energy is. Even Kirsten Gillibrand is trying to position herself to the left of Elizabeth Warren. One can debate whether the formerly centrist Gillibrand has had a sincere conversion or whether she is an opportunistic weathervane. But her stances say a lot about where the Democratic weather is.
Nobody has officially declared, of course, but as a splendid profile of Warren in New York magazine explains, Warren is increasingly the favorite of the activist party base and a front-runner to be the nominee.
Another likely finalist is Cory Booker. If Bernie Sanders goes again, he could be a third finalist.
Joe Biden is prominently mentioned, but I don’t buy it. He is almost as old as Bernie. Biden will turn 78 in November 2020, when Sanders will be 79. Biden is loved by the pundit class, but in two previous primary runs, he lost badly.
If I had to place money on it, I’d bet that Warren will be the nominee and that Sanders won’t run. If Sanders and Warren get into a slugfest and divide the left, a more centrist economic candidate who is left on social issues like Booker could win.
What About Nancy Pelosi?
Should Democrats take back control of the House in this year’s midterms, there is movement among backbenchers in the House Democratic Caucus to replace Pelosi as prospective Speaker with a younger leader who is less of a lightning rod for Republican caricature. There are three problems.
First, the other members of the senior Democratic leadership are of Pelosi’s generation. The Whip, Steny Hoyer, at 79, is older then Pelosi. Joe Crowley, the Caucus chair, was defeated in a primary by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Second, even though some Democratic candidates have pledged not to vote for Pelosi for speaker in order to take that issue off the table, she has been a very effective leader and there is a great deal of loyalty to her. When Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan challenged Pelosi for leader in 2017, Pelosi won overwhelmingly, 134 to 63.
Third, there is no consensus candidate among back-benchers to succeed Pelosi. Ryan would not do much better if he challenged Pelosi again. She might lose a couple of dozen votes from newly elected Democrats, but that’s not sufficient to topple her. And many newly elected Democrats will be women and progressives — like Pelosi.
My bet is that there will be an agreement in the caucus to give Pelosi one more term as Speaker in exchange for her agreement to step down after 2020. And then her successor will be someone not in the current top leadership ranks, but a committee chair or other second-tier leadership figure in their 40s or 50s.
As for the midterms? A year ago, I bet that Democrats would pick up 54 House seats. They may not gain quite that many, but they should comfortably take back the House.
A Close Run Thing
After the Battle of Waterloo, the victorious Duke of Wellington described his victory as “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” The remark has often been rendered as “a close run thing.”
The appointment and survival of Mueller has been a close run thing. Had Attorney General Jeff Sessions not recused himself, had Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein not been committed to the rule of law, had Sessions not refused to buckle under Trump’s taunts and threats, and had just enough senior Republican Trump allies in Congress not warned Trump to keep his hands off Sessions and Rosenstein, Mueller would have been done for.
If American democracy survives Trump, it will have been a close run thing. At the risk of making the most out-on-a-limb prediction of all, I think that it will.
So, who actually said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future?” The expression has been attributed to figures as varied as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. Alas, the original is lost to the mists of time.
It turns out that getting the past right is almost as hard as getting the future right.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?