In presidential elections there’s no such thing as a Pyrrhic victory. Winning is everything — and neither party would ever openly admit there could be advantages to losing.
Yet the outcome of the 2020 election wasn’t entirely unlucky for the Republican Party or even Donald Trump himself. And as both parties look to next year’s contest, far-sighted strategists can see a bigger picture beyond Trump and Biden.
Whoever won in 2020 was going to face the ugly but necessary task of withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan, where twenty years of nation-building had failed to establish a free state that could resist the Taliban. Trump might have executed the withdrawal more successfully than Biden. But if he had, would the media have covered him more favorably?
Of course not. If Trump had exited Afghanistan in the most orderly manner possible, the establishment media would still have covered the story as negatively as it covered every other Trump achievement. And because they were opposed to ending the war in the first place, neoconservatives in right-leaning legacy media would have condemned Trump in exactly the same terms as they’ve condemned Biden, no matter how different the execution might have been.
Similarly, whatever Trump might have done right or wrong with respect to Covid in 2021, the pandemic would have remained a source of bad headlines. With Afghanistan and Covid as defining issues of the first half of Trump’s second term, congressional Republicans would have faced brutal results in the 2022 midterms. Six-year midterms are historically agonizing for the party in the White House. With Trump in the White House, and in that issue environment, no political handicapper can have any doubt about GOP fortunes in 2022.
There’s no point in guessing what would have happened in the last two years of a second consecutive Trump term, but given the scenarios above, and the fact that a two-term president has been succeeded in office by a member of his own party only once since the 1950s, one can predict with confidence that Republicans would not be on track to keep the White House in 2024. And a younger, more energetic Democrat than Joe Biden would be lined up to crush Mike Pence that November.
Instead, Biden is president, and the Democrats are facing a grim 2024. Although the 2022 elections were hardly a triumphant romp for the Republicans, they did take control of the House of Representatives, and they’re two seats away from power in the Senate. As things now stand, one of two outcomes will occur next year, either of which will strengthen the GOP: Trump beats Biden, in which case the party takes the executive branch and probably doesn’t lose the House, or Biden beats Trump, in which case an already weak Democratic president presents the congressional GOP with a golden opportunity when his six-year midterms come around in 2026.
And then look ahead to 2028 — after eight years of Biden, or perhaps a mixture of Biden and Kamala Harris, will voters want another Democrat? The rule that a two-term president doesn’t get succeeded by a member of his own party isn’t inviolable. But the last president to beat the trend was Ronald Reagan. If you had to bet on the next president to do so, would you put your money on Biden?
Even if Trump loses next year, Republicans have a lot to look forward to in ’26 and ’28. But what if he wins?
First, that probably means pick-ups for the GOP in the House and Senate. The gamble with Trump is that while he maximizes Republican turnout, he also runs the risk of maximizing Democratic turnout. Nevertheless, in 2020, when turnout across the board hit nearly 67 percent — numbers not seen in well over a century — with Trump at the top of the ticket Republicans gained seats in the House. If Trump beats Biden next year, the House GOP should do even better.
And in that case, the party might hold the House even if 2026 midterms under Trump are tough. Whether the second set of midterms for a president serving non-consecutive terms would be as rough as six-year midterms typically are for presidents with consecutive terms is an open question. Grover Cleveland in the nineteenth century offers the only example. (Republicans did, in fact, make huge gains over Cleveland’s Democrats in 1894, during his second term.)
If Republican officeholders don’t seem nearly as alarmed as certain center-right pundits, and wannabe pundits, at the prospect of Trump as the GOP nominee next year, it’s because they know the rhythms of politics as well as the demands of Republican voters. Their self-interest lies with Trump.
The situation is asymmetrical for Democrats — their self-interest does not lie with Biden. He and Harris are an albatross that can only drag the party down next year, in 2026, and in 2028. They were nominated in 2020 on the fumes of the Obama years and in the hopes that Biden would reassure voters amid Covid and the George Floyd riots. But what he and Harris have delivered is humiliation in Afghanistan, another war in Ukraine, inflation, high crime and transgenderism for schoolchildren. And “kids in cages,” too, as Biden has had to resort to tactics for which Trump was demonized, yet without actually taming the border crisis.
Democrats might have hoped that Biden could be defined as a success by contrast to Trump’s failures. Instead, a returning Trump may have an easier time proving his second term as a success thanks to Biden’s failures. The winner Democrats picked in 2020 has turned them into long-range losers.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2023 World edition.