Here’s a puzzling twist: The winner of the 2016 presidential election is losing badly in polls. And the loser of the 2016 election is losing even worse.
The economy’s grown nicely for six straight months. Unemployment is way down. Stock markets are way up.
So, at the end of the new president’s first year, why are Americans so unhappy politically? What’s going on?
The evidence of trouble is overwhelming. The job approval of Congress wallows in the low teens. President Donald Trump took 30 states for a decisive Electoral College victory of 307 to Hillary Clinton’s 227. (If your thought just then was, ‘Well, she won the popular vote,’ you’re part of that party’s problem.)
But Trump’s job approval has sunk below 40 percent again, currently averaging 38.7.
Presidential losers always sink in post-election polls, a lingering reflection of the results. But usually they climb back within a year. Not Clinton. Hers are now even worse than Trump’s — 36 percent approval, down another five points since summer.
Naturally, an Oval Office incumbent draws more attention than his defeated opponent, especially one who didn’t have the strength for an election-night concession speech. And Trump has proven to be the presidential P.T. Barnum of drawing attention to himself, often distastefully and destructively.
As Trump’s base has proven stubbornly supportive no matter what, so too has his far larger mob of disapprovers, who seems to ignore or can’t make out the good news amid the firings, petulance and needless quarrels with his own party leaders and irrelevant TV hosts.
Clinton, of course, has the baggage of a quarter-century in a controversial public life with the added burden of an impeached husband with a wandering eye and hands. Plus the lingering odors of recent scandals around her family’s foundation, her private email server and the overlapping lies surrounding its endless revelations.
Recent months have produced, among other things, even more unsavory background on secret party maneuvers to sink Bernie Sanders’ campaign and commission an anti-Trump dossier to feed to the media and FBI.
Campaigns are auditions for any wannabe president. Clinton’s in 2016 was mismanaged from the get-go. What sentient Democrat nominee would ignore Wisconsin and Michigan? Or vow to kill coal miner jobs? And, by the way, what was the main message of her candidacy? “It’s my turn.” “I’m Barack Obama only female and white.”
In contrast to her husband’s winning political skills, Hillary Clinton’s campaign persona was charmless, wooden and riven with “deplorable” missteps. Her sense of entitlement grated on a wave of populism.
This year, Clinton’s endless “What Happened” book tour may have spurred sales. But her frequent blame-shifting only reminded Americans of why even a boorish billionaire looked like the lesser of two evils.
Then came Donna Brazile’s book, “Hacks,” confirming some of the worst suspicions about Clinton and her campaign.
Now, in the absence of other big names, some Democratic leaders are talking about Clinton campaigning in the 2018 midterm elections just 45 weeks away. She seems willing. That would be in congressional districts she won last year, but would hand Republicans an inviting target to dodge defending Trump.
Even in D.C., it’s tough to be a powerless party in exile. Who is the head of the Democratic Party anyway? Joe Biden is 74. The most popular Democrat, Sanders, was born before Pearl Harbor, for Bernie’s sake. Nancy Pelosi is 77, her No. 2 even older.
“Our leadership is old and creaky, including me,” says former party leader Howard Dean, who’s 69.
Democratic farm teams at the state level were largely demolished by Republicans during Obama’s me-first eight years.
The history of any president’s first midterms suggests Democrats should make substantial congressional gains next Nov. 6. And recent special elections appear to show Emperor Trump has no coattails.
There’s one ominous sign for those Democratic hopes, however. In off-years like 2017, dollars are the surrogate ballots. Through November, the Democratic National Committee raised $60.7 million. Its Republican counterpart took in twice that, $121.4 million, largely through small donations from Trump supporters putting their money where his mouth is.
Major Democratic donors were quoted by media as withholding funds until the reeling party figured out what it was for, instead of simply opposing anything Trump.
In that sense, 2017 demonstrated the disturbing contemporary weaknesses within both of the country’s historic and essential parties. Democrats, who belong to the second oldest party in the Western world, have no leader and appear to be drifting from the winning center to the far left.
Republicans, on the other hand, have a leader who isn’t a Republican. Free of any ideological tether beyond “winning,” he’s largely let its factions feud their way toward futility.
Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.