You saw the play when it first came out. Now you are watching the movie that followed.
It was great drama, to be sure, the first time around. It was tragedy, not comedy. It is being replayed right now, with the first scene, set in Virginia, just completed. Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden are running against each other again.
No one knows whether they actually will compete for the second time in 2024. Both men are old; Biden will be 82 a month after the next election, Trump will be 78 when the next Republican National Convention convenes. As a result, neither man should be buying green bananas today. Already a segment of the Democratic Party is impatient with Biden. A segment of the Republican Party, though far smaller, still reviles Trump.
But the two men, and their parties, are in a rerun. Terry McAuliffe conducted his Democratic race to recapture the governor’s chair in Virginia as if he were running against Trump, adopting and adapting a tactic Gavin Newsom employed when he successfully defended his governorship by transforming the California recall effort into a referendum on Trump. For his part, Trump still is running against Biden, mounting an attack against his successor in the White House that can be compared only to Herbert Hoover’s jeremiads against Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal after he lost the 1932 election.
Trump was the sun around which the 2016 campaign was conducted and the Sun King about which the 2020 election was run. He may be out of office, but as a figure who is not out of mind nor out of the public conversation, he still casts an enormous shadow over American politics.
He weighed in on the eve of the Virginia gubernatorial election, in which the Democrats bet that by tying Republican Glenn Youngkin to the 45th president, they could muster the anti-Trump fervor that cast out three GOP House members from Virginia in the congressional elections of 2018 and that kept the state in the Democratic column in 2020. McAuliffe lost the election Tuesday, and even before the networks declared the Republican the victor, the Democrats were reevaluating that entire strategy for next year’s midterms.
They may even pass the infrastructure bill the country yearns for and over which they have dawdled and diluted.
Until Tuesday, the Democratic playbook was set. Biden dipped his toe into Virginia political waters and said, “I ran against Donald Trump, and Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump.” The Democrats and McAuliffe portrayed Trump the way Alexander Hamilton saw Aaron Burr, as a man who “loves nothing but himself ... He is sanguine enough to hope every thing — daring enough to attempt every thing — wicked enough to scruple nothing.”
A lot of good that did them. McAuliffe was expected to win by 10 to 12 percentage points. Youngkin won by about 70,000 votes.
Repeatedly, the Democrats have tried to paint Trump as a figure at odds with the fundamental principles of the nation, whether those of today or those that helped shape the early republic. In his 2006 “Revolutionary Characters,” the distinguished early-America historian Gordon S. Wood set out the view of political virtue that prevailed during the time of the Founders: “Being a gentleman was the prerequisite to becoming a political leader. It signified being cosmopolitan, standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, and being free of the prejudices, parochialism and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and the barbaric.”
Trump clearly doesn’t qualify. That clearly doesn’t matter.
Now the Democrats — who emphasized Trump in mayoral contests in Buffalo and Seattle, produced 50 television ads featuring the former president, flooded social media with images of their bete noire, and planned to do more of that nationwide next year — have to come to grips with the challenge they face, not the challenge they pose to Trump.
Here’s that challenge in cold, unforgiving and unavoidable numbers: Nearly 3 in 4 Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to the latest NBC News Poll. As if that were not warning sign enough, 70 percent of Independents feel that way; almost everyone believes that Independents are the key to the elections of 2022 and 2024. Almost half the country registers strong disapproval of Biden, putting him in Trump territory when it comes to negative ratings. A Morning Consult/Politico poll showed that 3 out of 5 Americans believe that Biden is responsible for rising inflation.
The result: rising prospects for Republicans.
Add in the fact that Trump has been raising money like mad — he had more than $100 million in cash at the last reporting period, which ended three months ago, and has accelerated his fundraising activities since then — and the Democrats have reason to worry as they look ahead — first to congressional elections, where their slender House and Senate majorities are in deep peril, and then to the presidential election if Trump decides to run. Or even if he doesn’t.
Republicans hope he will. The latest Quinnipiac University poll showed that three-fourths of Republicans said they wanted to see Trump mount a third presidential campaign. That poll showed that, by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans give the Democrats in Congress a negative rating. (They can take scant comfort in the finding that the grade congressional Republicans received was even worse. The 2022 election will be a referendum on what the Democrats have, or haven’t, done on Capitol Hill, not what the Republicans might do in 2023.)
In the meantime, the Republicans have learned something, too.
Youngkin was the repository of the votes of Virginia Trump supporters without hammering home the endorsement of Trump himself. Some called him Trump Lite. He veered right, to be sure, especially in the local issues involving parental rights over the education of their children. But he didn’t ape Trump’s conduct or copy his invective. In that, he was the Republican version of Democrat Conor Lamb, who in 2018 recaptured a suburban Pittsburgh House district by keeping his distance from the sharpest progressives in his party. Watch for Republicans to mine the Trump base without mimicking the Trump style next year.