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Prepare to Meet Donald Trump, Defender of Democracy

The New York Times logo The New York Times 5 days ago Charles R. Kesler
a crowd of people walking down the street © Damon Winter/The New York Times

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Addressing his cheering supporters in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders declared, “This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump.”

But wait, wasn’t the House vote to impeach him the beginning of the end for Donald Trump? The United States had never before impeached a president running for re-election, and now we are beginning to see some of the incongruities of switching from one constitutional process to another so quickly. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Democrats’ nominating process will play out as a sequel to the impeachment proceedings, a strange coda in which each candidate will try to prove to fellow Democrats the case against Mr. Trump that the House managers failed to win in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of course, Mr. Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, the top three finishers in New Hampshire, will have to carve out room from their denunciations of Mr. Trump for criticism of one another. Occasionally, they may even remember to say an unkind word about Joe Biden, the former front-runner. The gravamen of their case, however, will be to show that the president and his policies are a disgrace and must go. That much is normal.

What isn’t normal is that this year’s Democrats feel they must condemn also, and especially, Mr. Trump himself as a danger to the Constitution and to the integrity of the 2020 election. They have to show that the impeachment was not in vain.

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So how will Mr. Trump go about running against one of these Democrats (or even Michael Bloomberg)? His re-election pitch will rest on three elements: the president himself, the economy and his Democratic opponent. The experience of impeachment may have provided a fourth: Mr. Trump as defender of democracy.

He begins in a solid position coming off impeachment. Remember, President Bill Clinton’s popularity was greater after impeachment than before. According to Gallup, Mr. Trump’s job approval rating shot up to 49 percent, his highest since taking office, as the Senate considered his case. Propelled by a robust economy and a dynamic State of the Union speech, those numbers may go higher.

The long run is less certain. Among Mr. Trump’s fervent supporters the impeachment will be further evidence of his persecution by a corrupt establishment, for which they will love him all the more. But there are too few of them to re-elect him in a two-person race. Mr. Trump needs millions of voters who don’t wear MAGA hats, for whom the impeachment, even after acquittal, could reinforce doubts about his character and competence.

So as long as Mr. Trump’s base continues to admire him, he’s willing to bid for the marginal voters he needs on the basis of what he’s done for them lately. Impeachment doesn’t help him with these voters, but he’s betting it won’t hurt him very much, either, because it hasn’t hurt them. The economy has shrugged it off. Mr. Trump will point to his overall record in office but especially the economy, and not merely to the booming stock market but also to higher wages for the lower middle class and record unemployment for all. This is the kind of success that even skeptical voters might attribute to a businessman like him. That’s risky, because prosperity can be here today and gone tomorrow. But that’s politics.

His insurance policy against bad economic times before Election Day is the Democratic presidential candidates themselves. Whether it’s Mr. Sanders, Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Klobuchar or one of the others, the alternative to the president will not exactly be a Pericles. Four years ago, Mr. Trump defeated Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, emissaries of two of the most powerful political families in America, whose political accomplishments looked much more formidable, on the surface at least, than anything Mr. Sanders or Mr. Buttigieg or Ms. Klobuchar has ever done in politics. Why shouldn’t he be rubbing his hands in anticipation?

Yet even with the acquittal, the roaring economy and a lame opponent, impeachment remains a potential electoral stumbling block. Mr. Trump needs something positive to take out of the experience. Oddly enough, he may have found it in his lawyers’ arguments to the Senate portraying him variously as: the tribune who refused to let the people’s champion be driven from office; the defender of the constitutional presidency against a passionate, factious majority in the House; and the restorer of moderation and equilibrium to a political system badly deranged by a half century of partisan excess and bureaucratic engorgement.

Prepare to meet Donald Trump, defender of American democracy.

This new appeal builds on his America First nationalism and antipathy to liberal judges, and responds directly to the Democratic presidential contenders’ charge that he threatens the Constitution. It would give him a rare chance to defend his administration as high-minded.

Will he take that chance? His speech in New Hampshire before the primary election showed few signs of it, sticking to his now familiar excoriation of his impeachers as sick, vicious, terrible and nasty. But either way, the president, his Democratic rivals and American voters in general will discover that it is not so easy to put the impeachment behind us as we might like.

Charles R. Kesler, the editor of The Claremont Review of Books and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of the forthcoming book “Crisis of the Two Constitutions.”

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