Thursday, Sep 16, 2021

Don’t Run, Donald

Comparisons between former president Donald Trump and ex-prime minister Binyomin Netanyahu are commonplace, especially by those with an animus towards both men.

At one level, the comparisons are grossly unfair to Netanyahu. However tightly he held on to power and failed to groom a possible successor, he clearly possesses many qualities to which Trump cannot lay claim. The first is his absolute command of policy issues. Not even the most ardent fan of the former president would ever call him a policy wonk.

As Finance Minister, Netanyahu instituted many of the free market reforms that underlie Israel’s remarkable economic growth over the past two decades. Even in his last year in office, under immense pressure from his corruption trial and the political tensions of a rapid-fire succession of elections, he still managed to procure enough vaccines for Israel for it to become the world leader, at one point, in the percentage of citizens inoculated. And he has overseen a series of covert operations against the Iranian nuclear program, including the heist of many tons of Iranian nuclear documents and the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist.

Netanyahu is almost certainly the most eloquent political leader in the world, and capable of masterfully explaining the bases for Israel’s actions. And his English is perfect. Trump unquestionably knows how arouse a crowd of his enthusiastic supporters, but his persuasive powers are minimal.

Finally, Netanyahu conducts himself with the discipline of a former member of an elite combat division. Once he has identified the path to victory, he adheres to it closely. By contrast, Trump consistently failed to take the steps that would have ensured his re-election. He became too intoxicated by the adulation of his base to risk the loss of their ardor. He proved incapable of any of the rhetorical changes necessary to expand his support by reassuring suburban mothers. His bullying of Joe Biden in their first debate was sufficiently off-putting to have possibly cost him the election.

But in one respect, the two men bear much in common. Both clung to power fiercely, and both have looked with a gimlet eye at anyone touted as a potentially capable successor. (At least Netanyahu can arguably be forgiven for thinking that only he could save Israel from Iran’s nuclear threat and that he was head and shoulders above any other Israeli political leader.)

Had Netanyahu been willing at any juncture to give up his premiership, it would have be an easy matter to construct a solidly right-wing government, with Netanyahu’s Likud Party at the helm and him remaining in a position of great influence within the government.

In a parallel fashion, Trump’s post-election behavior undoubtedly cost Republicans control of the Senate and left the Democrats holding the presidency, Senate, and House. In order to gain control of the Senate, the Democrats had to win both run-off elections in Georgia, a traditionally red state, and one in which Republicans won more votes in state and congressional races in November than did Democrats. Incumbent Senator David Perdue garnered 80,000 more votes than his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, in November. And in the other senatorial race, Kelly Loeffler and the other Republican candidate combined easily outpolled Democrat Raphael Warnock.

In addition, both Democratic candidates were from the left-wing of their party and out-of-step with the Georgia electorate. Warnock had a long video record of hectoring America, the police, capitalism, the military, and Israel in the harshest possible terms from his pulpit in Atlanta’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church. His victory was not the equivalent of electing as president someone who had sat quietly in the pews as Reverend Jeremiah Wright launched comparable attacks on America from the pulpit; it was the equivalent of electing Wright himself. In addition, Warnock faced well-documented charges of trying to cover up from investigators child abuse at a day camp he ran, as well as a police video of him and his ex-wife in a heated domestic dispute.

For the Democrats to have won both run-off elections in January was the equivalent of a novice golfer hitting a hole-in-one on his first trip to a golf course. And they could not possibly have done it without a huge assist from then president Trump. By continually harping on how he had been robbed, including in large rallies in Georgia, Trump put both Republican candidates perpetually on the defensive. They could not focus voters’ attention on their opponents’ far left positions. Every debate or appearance began with them being asked whether they acknowledged that Joe Biden was the president-elect. Answer yes and they would have been blasted by the president and alienated his followers; answer no and they lost suburban moms in droves. Biden did 8 percent better among suburban voters in Georgia in 2020 than Hilary Clinton in 2016.

And by questioning the integrity of the Georgia election process, Trump discouraged many of his supporters from voting in the January run-off elections. And it did not help that the two attorneys pressing his election claims in Georgia – Sydney Powell and Lin Wood – explicitly advised Trump voters to stay home and not vote in the run-off elections. Michael Barone, one of America’s most astute political analysts, noted that turnout was down in the most pro-Trump areas of the state – the very ones in which he campaigned prior to the run-off election.

The coup de grace, as far as Republican chances went, was the release of a phone call between Trump and Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which the president alternately cajoled, bullied, and ridiculed Raffensperger in a futile effort to convince him to ”find” sufficient votes to push the state into the Trump column.

But the current makeup of the Senate is in past. It is time to focus on the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race. My analysis is that former President Trump is the weakest Republican candidate of all the likely possibilities, but that if he contends for the nomination, he will hamstring any of the several candidates who would be stronger general election candidates.

First, let us analyze his own weakness as a general election candidate. At no point in his presidency did Trump’s approval ratings ever top 50 percent, even with a booming economy. By contrast, President Biden’s approval ratings since entering office have consistently hovered in the upper 50 percent range, despite a thoroughly lackluster performance, including a self-inflicted crisis on the southern border, growing fears of runaway inflation, and his own obviously declining mental faculties.

That contrast can only be attributed to a general relief felt on the part a majority of Americans to be rid of the constant drama of the Trump presidency. And while politicians can certainly increase their standing in the polls, after four years in office and the post-election drama, opinions on the former president have undoubtedly hardened to the point where little can be done to change them. As president, Trump could have moved to expand his support and to have adopted a less abrasive approach, and yet he never showed any inclination to do so. And therefore, it must be doubted whether he has the ability to do so now. Moreover, his obsession with the 2020 results will inevitably cause him to focus on the least potent issue for voters outside of his base. Relitigating 2020 is the surest way for Republicans to lose in 2024.

That is not to say Trump could not win. President Biden appears to be in his dotage and almost certainly will not run in 2024. Should Kamala Harris, who was a dud as a candidate in the Democrat primaries and who has underwhelmed as vice-president, ascend to the presidency prior to 2024, the Democrats would be stuck with her as their 2024 candidate. And she would be eminently beatable. But a number of other potential Republican candidates – e.g., Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Texas governor Greg Abbott, and former South Carolina governor and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley – would all be stronger candidates and have solid records of achievement to run on.

But if Donald Trump seeks the 2024 nomination, he will effectively cripple any other potential Republican candidate. No Republican can win without Trump’s voters – i.e., those who were so alienated from the political system that they had long since ceased to vote before he came along. And a large percentage of those voters would view any competing candidacy as an act of lese-majeste, and perhaps refuse to vote if one of the other candidates bested Trump in the primaries, and especially if Trump refused to support that candidate, which based on past performance he likely would. In short, an almost insoluble game theory problem for any potential rival.

What, then, might persuade the former president not to seek the 2024 Republican nomination assuming that his energy levels remain sky high? Perhaps the fear of losing once again. And perhaps the recognition that should the Republicans lose in 2024, the populist political realignment that Trump did so much to bring about would be dead forever. And with it any chance of reviving his pushback against the “woke” takeover of the universities and our major cultural institutions. Lost and gone forever would be some of his clear foreign policy triumphs, including the reversal of Obama administration’s pro-Iranian Middle East policy and the message to the Palestinians that time is not on their side, and they cannot just sit around and hope for the delegitimization of Israel, especially after their major Arab supporters have abandoned them in favor of an economic and military alliance with Israel.

Possible. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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