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Democrats, Don't Hit the Panic Button

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/12/2020 William A. Galston
a group of people posing for the camera © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Rarely has a political party gone from confidence to gloom as quickly as Democrats did last week. In rapid-fire blows, impeachment foundered in the Senate, President Trump delivered a politically effective State of the Union address, and the Iowa caucuses imploded in a flurry of intraparty recriminations.

Democrats also began to realize that the economy’s continuing strength will complicate their messaging and that the failed effort to remove Mr. Trump from office may have negative political consequences. Nearly 60% of Americans say they are better off financially than they were four years ago. A much-discussed Gallup survey put Mr. Trump’s job approval at 49%, a personal best, and found rising public approval of and identification with the Republican Party.

An avowed socialist began to consolidate the Democrats’ progressive wing and emerged as a front-runner for the presidential nomination. Three leading center-left candidates—Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg—intensified their attacks on one another while Michael Bloomberg, armed with unlimited money, prepared for Super Tuesday (March 3). The former New York mayor already enjoys 15% support nationally, according to the Feb. 10 Quinnipiac survey. Doubts multiplied that any candidate has what it takes to win the general election. Many Democrats feared a serious party split.

To those of us who have been around for a while, the Democrats’ abrupt descent into despair seems premature. Here’s why:

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Compared with the Democratic divisions of 1968, today’s seem minor. Candidates rarely look impressive—or the party united—at this stage of the contest. In early 1992, the Democratic candidates were widely dismissed as Lilliputians with little chance of defeating President George H.W. Bush, who had brought the Cold War to a successful conclusion and won a smashing victory over Saddam Hussein. In 2008 the often bitter contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continued into early June, when Mrs. Clinton gave a gracious concession speech and began unifying rank-and-file voters behind Mr. Obama. 

This year, opposition to Mr. Trump among Democrats is pervasive and intense, making it likely that the party will close ranks behind its nominee. Sen. Bernie Sanders has already pledged to support the nominee, and there is good reason to believe that he will work hard to persuade his followers. He won’t want to go down in history as a sour-grapes loser who helped re-elect Mr. Trump.

The Gallup survey that sent shock waves may have captured a fleeting public mood, or it may prove to have been an outlier. The Real Clear Politics polling average puts the president’s job approval at 45% and shows a smaller increase than Gallup in recent months. The Quinnipiac poll placed his approval at 43%, up only two points since late September. No survey other than Gallup shows such a large rise in Republican party identification, and Gallup concedes that similarly large gains in Democratic identification after the failed Clinton impeachment soon eroded.

A strong economy may be less of an advantage for Mr. Trump than for previous incumbents. Partisanship now shapes perceptions of the economy more than at any other time in decades. Nearly all the increased satisfaction with the economy is attributable to a 60-point rise among Republicans since 2016.

In addition, the political landscape has changed since James Carville’s famous “It’s the economy, stupid” maxim in 1992. Divisions over culture and identity have become more salient across liberal democracies. A good case can be made that Candidate Trump’s pledge to get tough on immigration and build a border wall had a greater effect on the 2016 election than his stance on trade and other economic issues.

Any other president presiding over vigorous job creation and sustained full employment would enjoy robust approval. But Mr. Trump’s job approval lags far behind his rating on the economy. Only 37% of registered voters think he is honest. While about half the electorate approves of his acquittal in the impeachment trial, only 40% believe it cleared him of wrongdoing in the Ukraine matter. Many Americans who give Mr. Trump credit for accomplishments at home and abroad disapprove of his conduct and of the rhetoric that divides the country, even as it arouses his well-tended base. Some of these people could be persuaded to vote against him—if the alternative is attractive.

The voters who will decide the 2020 election yearn for less conflict, for a brand of politics that focuses on solving problems rather than scoring points. If the Democrats offer the country such a choice, they may well prevail over an incumbent president who rarely reaches out to the 54% of voters who didn’t support him in 2016.

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