Democrats Could Sail Through the Election and Then Drive off a Cliff

Charlie Cook New
September 29, 2020

For Joe Biden, the most dangerous people in this campaign are neither President Trump and his campaign operatives nor conservative members and what we used to call tea-party members. It's the left wing of his own party.

It’s the “defund the police” Democrats who claim that there is nothing that President Trump or congressional Republicans would not stoop to in order to achieve their goals, despite doing some stooping of their own. It’s those who want to expand the Supreme Court so they can plug in a liberal majority, quite possibly the dumbest thing that Franklin Roosevelt proposed in his 12 years as president.

At the same time, Republican incumbents in tough states and districts are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they steer to the center, they will offend their base and hard-core Trump supporters, folks who have demonstrated little tolerance for any Republican who withholds full-throated support from the president. But if they're perceived as marching in lockstep with Trump, the 60 percent or so of the electorate who aren't fans of the president—particularly those college-educated, white suburban women—will punish them. It is the definition of a no-win situation.

So many of the challenges that Republicans are facing this year can be traced not just to college-educated, suburban voters—particularly women—but very specifically those in fast-growing Sun Belt states, which propelled Democrats to a House majority in 2018 through the suburbs in Atlanta; Dallas; Houston; Kansas City; Oklahoma City; Richmond, Virginia; and other growing cities.

Republican senators face challenging races in the once-friendly confines of Arizona, Georgia (where two GOP senators are up for election), North Carolina, and Texas, where they're facing real difficulty in, wait for it, the suburbs. Senators are facing particularly tough races in states that have seen an influx of new residents, including Georgia (the Atlanta area), North Carolina (Charlotte and the Research Triangle), and Texas (Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio). Those states might be following in the footsteps of Virginia, which quickly made the shift from red to blue without spending much time in purple along the way.

Biden’s odds are looking pretty good, comparing results of a Fox News poll of key battleground states released Thursday night with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance. Biden had a 7-point lead in Pennsylvania (51 to 44 percent) where Clinton lost by seven-tenths of a percent. He had a 5-point lead in Ohio, (50 to 45 percent), which Clinton lost by a bit over 7 points, and an 11-point lead in Nevada, a state that Clinton narrowly won but one in which Trump has been trying to make inroads.

Now, Biden's chances of defeating Trump are in the range of three out of four, and Democrats seem to have an edge in the Senate and a lock on the House. The implications of Democrats scoring a trifecta are now being seriously contemplated.

But which Democratic Party would be in power?

Republicans and the Trump campaign are arguing that a President Biden would be a Trojan horse for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the rest of the progressive movement. From the opposite wing of the party, those who once competed against Biden for the nomination such as Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar are hoping that a Biden administration would position itself between Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s left-of-center approaches, the former closer to that center than the latter.

To be sure, the Democratic Party is more liberal today than it was when Clinton was president. For one reason, blue-collar whites—generally the Democratic Party’s least liberal demographic—have largely departed, moving the party’s center of gravity toward the left. Of course, there is the countervailing trend of the college-educated, suburban voters who, while strongly pro-choice, pro-environment, and anti-gun, are hardly down-the-line liberals and often grow uncomfortable with much of the rhetoric of the Left.

The last two times that Democrats had the House and Senate majorities along with the presidency, we remember what happened. After Clinton won in 1992, Democrats pursued a very aggressive agenda that some might argue was pretty liberal. They ultimately did a Thelma and Louise drive off a cliff in 1994, losing control of both the House, for the first time in 40 years, and the Senate, where they had majorities for 34 of the previous 40 years.

The next time, after Obama’s 2008 election, Democrats pursued an even more ambitious agenda that some could argue was pretty liberal and, sure enough, resulted in another Thelma and Louise trip. (To be fair, after Trump’s election in 2016, it was Republicans’ turn to take that adventurous road trip over the side.)

If Biden wins and Democrats are in control, the question is whether their memories are sufficiently strong to avoid the same ill-fated route in 2022. Certainly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had good vantage points for those excursions and might seek a different course.

A few days after my fellow Cook Political Report editors had an outdoor and socially distanced lunch in late June with a political reporter visiting from the West Coast (my only work lunch since March), the longtime journalist emailed me with a comment that I was climbing unusually far out on a limb with my conviction that Trump would not win reelection. I wondered if I were too sure. In the aftermath of the 2016 election surprise, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened and why that year, and what we all may have missed or misunderstood. I reached some conclusions and found that virtually none applied to 2020.

It seemed pretty obvious to me that Trump had an inauspicious first year. His average job approval that year was 38 percent—the lowest first-year rating of any elected president since the end of World War II, and 11 points below Clinton's low-water mark of 49 percent. The second year in office, his average approval rose just 2 points to 40 percent, the lowest of any second-year elected president in polling history. For the third year, it rose only 2 more points to 42 percent, though Jimmy Carter "won" the honors of the lowest third year with 37 percent. An average approval rating over an entire term of just 40 percent does not appear to be a successful reelection trajectory.

So, with Democrats having about as good a chance of recapturing the White House as an out-of-power party can possibly have, a legitimate question might be: Are they ready for it? Or do they pull another Thelma and Louise?

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on September 26, 2020