The best thing (perhaps the only thing) President Trump has heading into 2020 is that there will probably not be a recession.
While things aren’t so hot—the first reading on third quarter GDP showed the economy slowing to 1.9%—an outright downturn does not seem, for now, to be in the cards.
However, on a state-by-state basis–which is how elections are won–the picture is gloomier. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve now projects that the economies of seven states—including the battlegrounds of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which together hold 64 electoral votes)—are projected to shrink over the next six months. Hardly good news for the president.
By the way, here’s some context to that 1.9%. When GDP slowed to that rate in the first quarter of 2012, when Barack Obama was president, Trump—then a reality TV star—tweeted that “the economy is in deep trouble.”
But now that it has hit that rate on his watch, he spins that: “This country is doing better than it ever has before.”
That’s how politics works, folks. When a data point is bad for the other guy, the world is going to hell. But when the very same data is bad for you, put a lipstick on that pig and sing its praises. Love him or hate him, Trump excels at this and that’s one reason why, for all his other troubles, he remains a formidable candidate who should not be underestimated—as many Democrats seem to be doing.
The 1.9% GDP figure is also interesting because, as I mentioned, Obama was saddled with that in the first quarter of 2012—yet went on to win re-election with 332 electoral votes. But, you counter, Trump’s toxic and much more unpopular than Obama, right? The media narrative certainly makes it seem that way. And yet Gallup data shows Trump’s approval—a year before election day—just two points south of where Obama was at the same point in 2011. Another similarity: Both men could point to a rising stock market SPX, +0.61% and falling unemployment.
Now let’s take all the similar data away and examine the one big difference between these two presidents. The specter of impeachment wasn’t hovering over Obama as it does Trump. Here I need to make a critical point: Despite what you hear (and perhaps are eager to believe) about how this may play out, set your assumptions aside. We are in uncharted waters here.
We have never had a freely-elected president seeking re-election while facing impeachment. Andrew Johnson, impeached in 1868, was never elected president in the first place—he had only been Abraham Lincoln’s vice president. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton easily won second terms before impeachment proceedings against then even began. Nixon resigned ahead of all but certain impeachment and perhaps even Senate conviction. But Trump’s re-election and impeachment proceedings are occurring simultaneously—as unprecedented as it is astonishing.
Remember: Impeachment—“high crimes and misdemeanors” as the Constitution says vaguely—is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives says it is. What might that be? Ten allegations of obstruction of justice as identified in the Mueller report. His hush-money payoff of porn star/mistress Stormy Daniels. His public attacks on the country’s law enforcement and intelligence institutions. His personal profiteering while in office. Telling federal officials to commit crimes to build his wall because he’d just pardon them anyway. There is also contempt of Congress itself, a charge that was leveled against Nixon. I haven’t even mentioned his latest abuse: Ukraine.
Bill Clinton was impeached for obstructing justice—lying about an affair. Trump’s crimes are not only more numerous but far more serious. This much is clear: What Trump has done, frankly, is spectacularly impeachable, and he will be impeached. But conviction in the Republican-dominated Senate? Of course not—though newly retired Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona a Republican, says most of GOP colleagues detest Trump and would vote to convict—IF the vote was private. But it won’t be, of course.
The “conventional wisdom” is that impeachment will fire up Trump’s base—and there are signs that this is happening. Trump is raising millions, which is quickly being pumped into swing states that will determine the election. But who’s to say it won’t also fire up the Democratic base?
It’s also important to note that we’ve just moved into a new phase, where hearings will be held in public—giving millions of Americans more direct exposure to Trump’s dirty dealings. TV coverage of the Watergate hearings was a spectacle that day by day dragged Nixon down. The media is far more scattered today than in 1973-74 of course, and Trump fans watching only Fox will be exposed to little of it. But most Americans get their news elsewhere. How this coming avalanche of evidence against the president is presented—and consumed—as it drips out each day could move independents against the president; if I were him that’s what I’d worry about most.