Despite the turbulence of the government shutdown, President Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters anticipate a smashing victory in his drive for re-election, based on the economy’s continued strong performance.
Just imagine that 2020 sees the unemployment rate holding steady at historic lows — 3.6 percent for the year. Add to that a roaring growth rate, with gross domestic product rising at a glorious rate of 4.9 percent (more than its recent average).
With numbers like that, how could the president possibly lose?
To confront that question, the Trump team ought to consider the melancholy example of Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. Fifty-one years ago, LBJ enjoyed precisely the high-flying numbers cited above, with booming growth and minimal unemployment, but he still crashed and burned in his hopes for re-election.
In fact, LBJ couldn’t even secure renomination by his own Democratic Party: Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the little-known standard-bearer for the “Dump Johnson” movement, fared so well in early primaries that the president abandoned his expected drive for another term.
In fact, the booming economy did little to dilute the public’s sense that 1968 represented a wretched year of pain and failure. Two of America’s most inspiring young leaders, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, died at the hands of assassins. At the same time, nihilistic violence afflicted both the most impoverished and most privileged precincts of American society — with brutal riots in dreary inner-city neighborhoods as well as elite Ivy League campuses. Street fighting exploded at the Democratic convention in Chicago, while the seemingly endless Vietnam War claimed more than a thousand dead soldiers every month, with no victory in sight.
No wonder the public lost faith in the once admired commander in chief, as the press described a “credibility gap” that left people distrusting nearly anything the president told them.
In this context, the gaudy economic statistics seemed irrelevant, as did LBJ’s astonishingly lopsided victory of just four years before. Against Republican Barry Goldwater, Johnson won a record of 61 percent of the popular vote.
In 1968, his vice president and handpicked successor, Hubert Humphrey, drew less than 43 percent — a shift of 18 points away from Democrats that corresponded to heavy congressional losses.
This grim history should provide a cautionary note to Trump even if our economy continues to grow and thrive. Painful polarization among the populace, turbulence and reverses in foreign affairs and, above all, a pervasive sense that the president lacks integrity and reliability could easily undermine the benefits of healthy growth and plentiful jobs.
Remember that Trump’s admirable economic record in his first two years didn’t prevent opposition Democrats from gaining 40 House seats and seven governorships in the midterms. Continued prosperity would no doubt help him in 2020, but it can’t guarantee his success.
The realization that financial numbers don’t single-handedly determine outcomes should also sober Democrats, some of whom seem positively giddy over the prospect that a new recession in 2019 (or, even better, in 2020) would automatically doom Trump’s chances. Again, history provides numerous examples of presidents who easily won second terms despite deep troubles in the economy.
In 1972, Nixon ran for re-election with unemployment rates exploding — from 3.6 percent the year before he took office to 5.6 percent during the year he sought another term. Nevertheless, he won a landslide — carrying 49 states and 520 electoral votes.
Nixon prevailed in large part because the Democrat he defeated (George McGovern) had divided his party and represented the leftward edge in national politics. If Democrats choose a similar nominee from the party’s strident, “progressive” wing, Trump could conceivably replicate Nixon’s success, whatever the problems with the business climate or the administration’s ongoing scandals.
As Trump and his advisers consider their prospects for 2020, they must look to the history of the past half-century and reconsider the famous advice to another contender in the middle of that span. Yes, as James Carville memorably instructed his successful boss Bill Clinton in 1992: “It’s the economy, Stupid.”
But recollections of campaigns past prove that it’s not just the economy, Stupid. It’s also — and always — a question of overall confidence in presidential leadership.