Will Democrats whiff their shot at the White House?

A Republican friend of mine was down in the dumps after the 2008 election. Democrats had won the White House, both houses of Congress and, in North Carolina, the U.S. Senate race, the Governor’s office (for the fifth straight election) and both houses of the legislature.

My friend feared for his party’s future. “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “We Democrats will screw it up.”

Sure enough, in 2010, Democrats suffered devastating defeats up and down the ballot.

I’m reminded of that experience today as Democrats celebrate polls showing President Trump’s approval ratings falling and support for his impeachment rising.

There are two big reasons Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky. The first is the economy. The second is the party’s uncertain search for a candidate who can beat Trump.

As James Carville said, it’s always the economy, stupid

Americans are upbeat, if anxious, about the economy. One poll suggests that Americans have more confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the economy than a Democrat’s.

An October 6-8 Internet Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 people (including 1,241 registered voters) found that:

  • By 61-39, people say the news about the economy is positive.
  • While Trump’s overall approval rating is under water (43-49 negative), his handling of the economy gets a 47-42 positive rating.
  • If Trump is reelected, 33 percent think the economy will get better and 37, worse. That’s not great, but only 29 percent think the economy will get better if a Democrat wins; 39 percent say it will get worse.

Which Democrat can beat Trump?

Last week’s 12-candidate Democratic debate showed how split the party is on a presidential nominee. The big split is between moderates and progressives, and there are divisions over race and age.

Elizabeth Warren’s surge in the polls worries moderate Democrats. In the Economist/YouGov poll, 42 percent of people said Democrats are “too liberal.” Only 34 percent said Republicans are too conservative.

That’s why the moderates on the stage – Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg – targeted Warren. They said Medicare For All would cost too much, take away people’s insurance and scare away swing voters.

Front-runners at last week’s debate

Bernie Sanders might be over his heart attack, but he gave some Democrats a heart attack when he said out loud what Warren wouldn’t say: Taxes will go up to pay for Medicare for All, although he claimed that premiums, co-pays and, thus, total costs would go down.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg clearly think Joe Biden is fading, thanks to his shaky debate performances and the Hunter Biden questions. They calculate that the moderate lane to the nomination is opening up to an alternative. But the Democratic Party’s debate rules kept other moderates – Steve Bullock, Michael Bennett and John Delaney – off the stage.

Then there’s race. Barack Obama won the Presidency twice by turbocharging minority turnout. But neither Kamala Harris nor Cory Booker are winning strong support.

Obama also energized young people. Can a 70-year-old-plus nominee do that? At the other extreme, is America ready for a 37-year-old – and gay – President Pete?

Trump’s at his best one-on-one

Here’s what will likely happen now: The House will impeach Trump. The Senate will acquit him. Trump will claim victory. And he will end up in a head-to-head, WWE-style mudwrestling death match with one Democrat.

It won’t be Trump against “somebody else.” It will be Trump against somebody. He’ll do just what he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016: He won’t try to build up his numbers. He’ll try to tear down his opponent’s.

And Trump is good in that wrestling ring.

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