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Labor Day jitters on both sides of America's political divide

Labor Day jitters on both sides of America's political divide
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It's the norm that on Labor Day the year before a Presidential election a political party is nervous. What's unusual today is that both Republicans and Democrats are edgy.

For Republicans, Trump's even more than usual bizarre behavior is heightening private concerns about his instability; his anger is palpable as he lashes out at friend and foe alike as his poll numbers slip. With a dozen House Republicans already announcing their retirements, and more expected in ensuing weeks, the party has almost given up on taking back control of that body.

Yet Democrats are unsettled by their presidential contest, sometimes resembling a free-for-all circus. A continuing lurch to the left will make it much harder to win back a majority in the Senate next year.

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There's a consensus among most Democrats, and a number of Republicans, that Democrats could blow it … but Trump, by himself, can't win. He is markedly unpopular with very high negatives.

Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBoehner: Mass shootings 'embarrassing our country' Media complicity in rise of the 'zombie president' conspiracy Boehner: 'America First Caucus is one of the nuttiest things I've ever seen' MORE had similarly bad numbers at a comparable stage eight years ago, but there are big differences: The economy then was on the uptick, while it now appears to be heading south.

And, unlike his predecessor, Trump isn't trying to expand his base, which remains intensely loyal.

Trump’s upset 2016 victory — he lost the popular vote — was possible only because he won what Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosGOP campaign chief confident his party will win back House The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - At 50 days in charge, Democrats hail American Rescue Plan as major win House Democrats' campaign arm lifts ban on consultants who work for primary challengers MORE (D-Ill.) has called the "Trump triers." These were voters, maybe 7 percent to 8 percent of the electorate, who — while not solid Trumpites — were turned off by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' MORE and wanted to shake up Washington and drain the swamp of special interests and influence peddlers. But that swamp has only gotten muckier under Trump, and the triers may be disillusioned.

Some of the President's antics have drawn the ire even of hard-core backers like former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who was critical of Trump wanting to hold next year's G-7 session at the Miami hotel he owns. Trump and his family have never met a conflict that doesn't interest them if there's money.

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Most serious is the possibility that the booming economy, which Trump inherited, will slow over the next year, with a recession possible. Trump's already shaky standing likely will decline further. In the August Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the President's 43 percent job approval was boosted by a plurality giving him positive marks on the economy.

Still, Trump has assets.

He is going to avoid any serious primary — the current challengers are former Massachusetts Gov. William WeldWilliam (Bill) WeldRalph Gants, chief justice of Massachusetts supreme court, dies at 65 The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden visits Kenosha | Trump's double-voting suggestion draws fire | Facebook clamps down on election ads Biden picks up endorsements from nearly 100 Republicans MORE, an aging moderate/libertarian, and ex-Illinois Rep. Joe WalshJoe WalshGOP lawmakers mourn death of Rush Limbaugh Sacha Baron Cohen pens op-ed on the dangers of conspiracy theories Sunday shows preview: Protests continue over shooting of Blake; coronavirus legislation talks remain at impasse MORE, who was a mini-Trump when he was in the House. This affords the incumbent the political and fund-raising luxury of focusing solely on the general election.

But Trump’s biggest asset may be the Democrats.

In the Journal/NBC News survey all the major presidential candidates had negative approval ratings, though not as bad as Trump.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGraham: 'I could not disagree more' with Trump support of Afghanistan troop withdrawal Obama, Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley team up to urge communities of color to get coronavirus vaccine Biden to hold second meeting with bipartisan lawmakers on infrastructure MORE has had a rocky road since his April announcement. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWorld passes 3 million coronavirus deaths Poll: 56 percent say wealth tax is part of solution to inequality Democratic senators call on Biden to support waiving vaccine patents MORE (D-Mass.) has run the most impressive campaign and is one of only several candidates with a realistic chance of winning the nomination.

But if the party persists in a lurch to the left — advocating measures like a single-payer health care system and what Republicans will charge is an open borders policy, even abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — it will scare some Democrats and Independents away. That would imperil Democratic Senate candidates in key battlegrounds like Iowa, Arizona and North Carolina.

There also are special cases that could have broader implication. Freshman Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarBiden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' McCarthy: GOP not the party of 'nativist dog whistles' White House reverses course on refugee cap after Democratic eruption MORE (D-Minn.), one of the four left-wing members of the so-called “Squad,” is embroiled in personal disputes including over her immigration from Somalia; that will almost certainly be seized upon by Trump, who outrageously said these four women of color — all citizens, three native-born — should go back where they came from.

In Arizona Joe Arpaio, the immigration-bashing criminal convict (Trump pardoned him), says he's going seek his former Sheriff office in Phoenix. If he gets the Republican nod, Democrats save a lot of get-out-the-vote money in Arizona: Arpaio's a magnet for Latino turnout for Democrats.

Most top Democratic strategists contend the national problems will shake out, and either Biden or another mainstream Democrat — or a more tempered Warren — can win an election that will be about the extraordinary incumbent. They note encouraging polls not only in the industrial states Trump captured last time, but in places like Arizona and North Carolina, with some good numbers even in Texas.

There are four elections to watch in the next several months in Republican strongholds: a special North Carolina house race, and three gubernatorial races in Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana. If Democrats win the House race and two of the three governor contests, Trump anger and Republican angst will soar.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.