The substance of Trump's 2020 campaign

Matthew Walther

Donald Trump is the first president in American history to run for re-election after having been impeached. We should expect his second presidential campaign to be as singular as everything else in his still-astonishing political career has been.

There is another sense, however, in which his second campaign looks very familiar. Externally speaking, Trump is an ordinary incumbent president who should enjoy all the benefits traditionally associated with such a position. Despite the warnings of economists earlier this year, there has been no recession. His approval rating is about even with Barack Obama's at this point in his first term. His party appears more united behind him than it has at any point since his inauguration, including the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. No Republican defections are expected during his Senate trial, though it is possible that a handful of Democrats may vote against his removal from office. Meanwhile, several recent polls show him ahead of his Democratic rivals nationally. Is this what having been impeached is supposed to look like?

Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trial will be familiar to his supporters and his detractors alike. He will insult his enemies and rail against the corruption of national institutions technically under his authority, including our intelligence services. He will weaponize immigration and insist that his impeachment was illegitimate.

But he will also be able to produce a list of actual accomplishments, among them some that Democrats would be foolish to discount. Despite having spent a third of his term under divided government and subject to an endless series of hearings and investigations that ultimately culminated in impeachment, he was able to renegotiate NAFTA, earning the approval of major labor unions, who also approved of his shuttering of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He signed a sentencing reform bill that has already brought about the release of thousands of inmates from our prisons, one that will probably go down as the most significant piece of criminal justice legislation since the Clinton administration, whose legacy it will largely undo. He cut taxes for millions of working families. He eliminated the individual insurance mandate, the least welcome provision of the Affordable Care Act, while preserving the expansion of Medicaid, which continues to be favored by everyone save for a handful of right-wing governors. He spared us a war in Syria and tore up a feel-good nuclear deal with Iran that had done nothing to check the regime's atomic ambitions. He took the world-historically important, if largely symbolic, step of meeting in person with the North Korean dictator. He has begun the long, painful process of remaking our unbalanced trade relations with China. At home, wages are increasing for the first time since the Great Recession, and the unemployment rate in state after state is historically low.

There is only so much here that Trump's opponents will be to explain away. It is a truth universally acknowledged by politicians of both parties that unfavorable economic indicators are always the fault of the president currently in office, while good ones are the delayed result of wise decisions made by the previous administration. But what about the new trade deal? The process that led to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement was undertaken entirely on Trump's own initiative, stalled for months, and only reluctantly approved by his opponents in the middle of impeachment proceedings.

Countering Trump's vicious rhetoric should be less important to Democrats in 2020 than figuring out a way to argue that his campaign is lacking in substance. It will not be easy.

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