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President Donald Trump did not have a very good day Tuesday.
First, in the race for an Alabama Senate seat, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Trump’s preferred candidate, Roy Moore. It is worth remembering that Trump went from staying on the sidelines as Moore faced credible, multiple allegations of molesting young teenagers to full-throated support. We have the tweets to prove it:
Dec. 4: “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama. We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!” (Continued below.)
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Dec. 8: “LAST thing the Make America Great Again Agenda needs is a Liberal Democrat in Senate where we have so little margin for victory already. The Pelosi/Schumer Puppet Jones would vote against us 100% of the time. He’s bad on Crime, Life, Border, Vets, Guns & Military. VOTE ROY MOORE!”
Dec. 9: “A big contingent of very enthusiastic Roy Moore fans at the rally last night. We can’t have a Pelosi/Schumer Liberal Democrat, Jones, in that important Alabama Senate seat. Need your vote to Make America Great Again! Jones will always vote against what we must do for our Country.”
And from Tuesday: “The people of Alabama will do the right thing. Doug Jones is Pro-Abortion, weak on Crime, Military and Illegal Immigration, Bad for Gun Owners and Veterans and against the WALL. Jones is a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet. Roy Moore will always vote with us. VOTE ROY MOORE!”
Trump tried claim that this result doesn’t tarnish him because he backed Luther Strange in the GOP primary against Moore:
Dec. 13: “The reason I originally endorsed Luther Strange (and his numbers went up mightily), is that I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election. I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!”
This highlights some awkward facts for Trump. For one, anyone claiming that the GOP nominee in Alabama faced a stacked deck has never played a decent hand of poker in his life.
More significantly, the reference to Strange reminds everyone that this is the third election in a row in which he used Twitter, his bully pulpit, to back a losing candidate. Trump endorsed Strange, who lost to Moore. He went hard for Ed Gillespie, who lost the Virginia governorship to Democrat Ralph Northam. And now Moore. In each election, the candidate Trump opposed vastly exceeded preelection expectations.
Folks who win elections cultivate an aura of understanding the electorate. Because they won, the rest of the political class will kowtow to it. Whatever aura remained for Trump has now dissipated. As the AP’s Julie Pace wrote, “there’s no doubt that Trump’s track record of late has indeed been worrisome for Republicans weighing how closely to align themselves with the president in the midterms, where control of Congress will be at stake.” Trump will now face greater difficulty corralling GOP lawmakers and wayward Cabinet officials.
There are obvious parallels to Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts at the very end of President Barack Obama’s first year in office. But there are ways in which Trump faces a far worse political situation. America’s economic fundamentals are far stronger now than they were in January 2010. Obama had already racked up some significant legislative accomplishments by the time Brown won. Obama never faced a special counsel indicting key members of his team. And the GOP tax bill is way more unpopular than Obamacare.
As Republicans are so fond of pointing out, Democrats lost officeholders at every layer of government during Obama’s presidency. It will be interesting to see whether Trump has a similar effect on the GOP.
The other big difference between Obama and Trump is that the former was a far more disciplined politician than the latter. We saw that when Trump lashed out against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:
Dec. 12: “Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office “begging” for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!”
Gillibrand was not the first senator to call for Trump to resign. She was the first woman to do so, however. Trump’s tweet alone had two effects. First, it catapulted Gillibrand into the spotlight even more. Second, it prompted a blistering Dec. 12 editorial from an unlikely source, USA Today:
“With his latest tweet, clearly implying that a United States senator would trade sexual favors for campaign cash, President Trump has shown he is not fit for office. Rock bottom is no impediment for a president who can always find room for a new low . . ..
“A president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush. . ..
“If recent history is any guide, the unique awfulness of the Trump era in U.S. politics is only going to get worse. Trump’s utter lack of morality, ethics and simple humanity has been underscored during his 11 months in office. . ..
“The nation doesn’t seek nor expect perfect presidents, and some have certainly been deeply flawed. But a president who shows such disrespect for the truth, for ethics, for the basic duties of the job and for decency toward others fails at the very essence of what has always made America great.”
With all due respect, USA Today is not known for being quite so pungent in its editorials. If Trump can cause that newspaper to sound like that, then his base will require a tougher and smaller bubble to filter out the bad news. And his base keeps shrinking.
Obama survived Brown’s victory to win another term as president. But, as Trump is so fond of pointing out, he is no Barack Obama.
– Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.