By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
The year so far could hardly have gone better for Donald J. Trump. The elimination of Qassem Soleimani with as yet relatively minor fallout, his acquittal in the impeachment proceedings, and record high personal approval ratings make him the overwhelming favorite to win a second term on Nov. 2.
Every political leader needs luck, and Trump may feel it is jackpot time when looking at his opponents. The Democrats are in complete disarray. They cannot even organize a caucus in Iowa without a breakdown in the whole voting system and a failed app. The signals to the US electorate are hardly impressive. Chaos in Iowa is, for some, a harbinger of chaos in a potential Democratic White House. Trump is feasting on schadenfreude, as his Twitter feed reveals: “The Democrat Party in Iowa really messed up, but the Republican Party did not.”
The challenge that Trump sets is how not to talk about Trump. The whole impeachment process was, of course, all about him and, from a Democratic point of view, a failure. They tried to take down the king but ultimately left him stronger.
Arguably Trump’s greatest political skill is his innate ability to hog the headlines and steer the debate on to his terms. Who remembers what the key messages of the Hillary Clinton campaign were in 2016? It was, more or less, “Vote for me, I am Hillary.” Everyone remembers Trump’s key messages, from “Make America Great Again,” to “Build the wall,” and even “Lock her up.” In 2020, he will have a sound economic platform to boast about, plus a record of delivery on many of his key pledges. The elimination of Soleimani, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and now Qassem Al-Rimi will be prime exhibits that America’s enemies are quaking in their boots.
How can the Democrats pick themselves up off the floor as voting opens in New Hampshire?
If the Democratic campaign keeps to an “anyone but Trump” approach, it will lose. He will eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The trouble is that the two wings of the party are bitterly divided as to how, with the moderates pushing for a return to the pre-Trump days, whereas the left dreams of major root and branch change.
Narrowing the cast list that currently stands at 11 would be a start. Normally only two or three would be left by now. The sooner the party starts coalescing around a candidate, the sooner they can stop tearing chunks out of each other. The Trump campaign will love Joe Biden’s take on his rival, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg: “I do believe it’s a great risk to nominate someone who’s never held a higher office than mayor of a small city in Indiana.”
On the moderate wing, the man with that sacred asset, momentum, is Buttigieg. Winning Iowa will give him another gold-plated asset, exposure, which he needs to boost his current national polling average of just 7 percent. Name recognition is not an issue for Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Will Buttigieg be up to the task of handling the extra scrutiny, not least about his youth and inexperience? That is what such campaigns are all about. He will also have to contend with many American voters not yet being ready to accept having an openly gay president.
Biden risks heading in the opposite direction, appearing lackluster and perhaps showing his age, even though he is just a whisker ahead of Sanders in the overall nationwide poll (27 percent to 24). Fourth place in Iowa is not the stuff of a front runner and, as he himself admitted, he took “a gut punch.” He is not likely to win in New Hampshire and will have to hope he gets his expected bounce in South Carolina.
The hopes of the left lie mainly with Sanders. Can this self-styled “Democratic socialist” go further than he did in 2016? His Democrat rivals challenge him on how much his “Medicare for All” universal health care proposal will cost. He has yet to answer with detail. The spat with his other left-wing candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was hardly seemly, as they accused each other of lying. Yet he fared well in the most recent Democrat debate, coming out on top in most polls. One question Sanders is increasingly having to field is whether he would lead the Democrats to the sort of historic defeat fellow socialist Jeremy Corbyn did for Labour in the UK in December. The fear is that a leftish candidate cannot win over the crucial center ground.
Lying in the wings is Michael Bloomberg, who ducked out of the early starts in favor of focusing on Super Tuesday on March 3. Could he bring the two wings of the party together? Will his billions start to count?
Where are the Democrats in the technology race and the social media political warzone? The Democrats’ data game is far off its heyday, when the Obama campaign revolutionized the online political scene in 2008. Brad Parscale, who ran the Republican digital effort in 2016, is someone Trump truly believes in. Big data matters and Trump has the edge.
If the Democrats can overcome the Iowa shambles, then this will be an extraordinary election, perhaps the most polarizing in US history. As the incumbent president, Trump has many advantages. Only five incumbents have lost since 1900. Moreover, Trump’s campaign is far better organized than it was in 2016. He also has the funding in place, having already raised $100 million. Also do not ignore the fact that Trump has an advantage with the Electoral College. In 2016, Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 2.1 percent, but it was not enough.
Yet, nine months out from the election, this campaign will be a very long run. Anything can happen. The key for the Democrats is to coalesce around a credible candidate with a credible message. But the locker looks pretty bare at the moment.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech