It’s an unsettling political environment when “the only thing that is predictable is the unpredictability.”
But that’s how Amy Walter, the national editor of The Cook Political Report and a speaker at the Council’s National PAC Conference earlier this month, describes the first weeks of the Trump administration.
“You’d think ‘official Washington’ would have learned something about Donald Trump by now,” says Walter, who has been a fill-in host of Washington Week in Review on PBS since the death of longtime moderator Gwen Ifill in November. “But Trump continues to surprise people, even when he is doing exactly what he told us he would do.”
A ‘New’ Trump?
Throughout the presidential campaign, astute political observers regularly expected to see a “new” Donald Trump. “We expected to see a new Trump over and over,” Walter says. “We’d see a new Trump in the debates. He’d become a more conventional candidate. Then we figured we’d see a new Trump when he won the nomination, and then when he was running in the general election and was in the debates with Hillary Clinton. Then we’d see a new Trump when he won the election and then when he actually took office. And we were wrong every time. We said he’d be different, but he’s not. He’s the same Trump now as before.”
A ‘Chaos’ Presidency
But today the game has changed. “We’ve seen that a ‘chaos candidate’ can win the election,” Walter says. “We’ve seen how that confrontational style can succeed at campaigning. Now we will learn whether that same style can succeed at governing.”
Defining success might be easier than predicting it. “He’d made it pretty clear how he will determine whether he succeeds,” she says. “He wants to return manufacturing jobs to this country, and he wants to bring immigration under control, which includes building that wall. And there is a large percentage of the electorate that is not made up of die-hard Trump supporters who want to give him a chance to accomplish those goals. They want him to succeed but will wait and see whether he can deliver.”
“We’ve seen that a ‘chaos candidate’ can win the election,” Walter says. “We’ve seen how that confrontational style can succeed at campaigning. Now we will learn whether that same style can succeed at governing.”
Those voters are the ones to keep an eye on. “They might not like his tweeting and his general style, but they are willing to overlook it if he fulfills his economic promises in a way that impacts their lives in a positive way,” she says. “That is the part of the electorate that should be the key to how the midterm elections go.”
Predicting the outcome of the 2018 elections at this point is also problematic. “A lot depends on the degree to which the Republicans in Congress are willing to go along with the president,” Walter says. “It’s possible, depending on how things develop, that the Republicans could lose a lot of seats.”
And the Democrats? “That’s hard to predict, too. The problem for the Democrats is that some of the seats they have to defend are in red states that went for Trump. The Democrats are in a position to make some big gains, but for that to happen, everything needs to fall into place for them. And unfortunately for Democrats, the midterm electorate looks more like a Trump electorate than a Democratic electorate — it is older and less diverse.”
‘Fair Trade’ and Consumer Prices
A policy issue to watch that is admittedly “wonky,” Walter says, is “border adjustability.” This problem “is knotty, and politically explosive,” according to Forbes. Border adjustability refers to the tax code’s treatment of imports and exports. In support of “fair trade” and to protect American jobs, the Trump administration wants to tax imports.
Border adjustability “is an issue that is very important to middle-class Americans, whether they follow it closely as policy or not,” Walter says. “If Trump succeeds in slapping these taxes on imports, and middle-class Americans shopping at Target find they are paying $5 more for Pampers, that’s not going to go unnoticed. That’s a Trump issue that might not sit well with his voters.”
At a time when the only constant is change, guessing how this or any other issue will play out is a dicey proposition. As Casey Stengel — or was it Yogi Berra? — said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”
Knowing the Unknowable
Walter knows better than to pretend she knows the unknowable. “I think political pundits might be better served by doing less predicting and more observing as all this unfolds in real time,” she says. “That’s one thing we should have learned from the last presidential race.”