Presidents destroy their own legacies with overreach; Will Trump?

By Michael Collins

Pundits aplenty are dissecting why Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won. Rather than do that, I would caution President Elect Trump against hubris, disrespect, and overreach.

President Obama campaigned hard over the past few weeks. He hit the hustings with vigor in minority communities to exhort African Americans to protect his legacy. His legacy is firmly intact: He has destroyed the Democratic Party, as we know it.

The Democratic bench has been decimated as Republicans now have control of the White House, Senate, House of Representatives, and more governor’s mansions and state legislatures than they’ve had since 1928.

As important, the Democratic “brand” has been damaged permanently. Pundits on MSNBC spent Wednesday arguing that Hillary Clinton was the titular head of the Democratic Party. That’s wrong—Clintonism is dead. Sen. Elizabeth Warren now controls the Democratic Party.

This election saw the socialists—rebranded as “progressives”—rebel against the Clintons and their Wall Street-friendly brand of centrism. While talking heads have decried the GOP—with some justification—for not tolerating deviation from its catechism, the left wing of the Democratic Party has been particularly brutal in enforcing its orthodoxy.

Sen. Warren made no secret of her blacklist of candidates for appointment in a Clinton administration. The list reportedly contained hundreds of prominent Democrats who had been deemed by Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders as ideologically impure.

This, as much as the culture of corruption that accompanies the Clintons, was enough to frighten moderate voters. And the poor treatment of Sen. Sanders by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) helped alienate young progressive voters who might otherwise have held their noses and voted for Clinton.

This didn’t have to happen

Much of this did not have to happen. When Barrack Obama became president, he entered office with an 80% approval rating. But he squandered that good will by mocking Republicans at a televised “summit” three weeks after taking office.

As those leaders of a co-equal branch of government called him “Mr. President,” Obama talked to them like naughty schoolboys, culminating with his comment to his presidential rival, Senator McCain that, “John, the election’s over. I won.”

He then proceeded to push his progressive agenda with Democrats only—Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, “stimulus,” “Cash for Clunkers,” etc., curtly dismissing Republican inputs. His aides openly boasted that Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine were really Democrats, so the GOP couldn’t hold a filibuster. They effectively alienated potential allies by calling them RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). They then found out that friends don’t like being disrespected, especially in public.

A lifelong union Democrat told me he voted for Trump because Hillary Clinton supported NAFTA, which he blames for the loss of high-paying blue-collar jobs. Those job losses were compounded by the Progressive Left, which pushed its climate agenda over the interests of working class Americans. They attacked coal with a vengeance, shuttering mines, power plants, and heavy industries. This put well-paid union workers in the unemployment line, and when workers complained, they were derided as “angry white men.”

The Left learned that it could silence debate by labeling people “bigots” or “climate deniers,” and that by controlling the debate they could control the agenda. People who were unnerved by Black Lives Matter—and the ambush killings of cops—who said, “All lives matter,” were called bigots. People concerned with illegal immigration were labeled “xenophobes.” Those uncomfortable with men calling themselves “transgender women” using the girls’ locker room were called homophobic. Societal norms were turned on their heads and people were told to shut up.

Showing contempt for voters is never a good idea—especially when they are part of your base.

The new president needs to be careful

This is a cautionary tale for President-Elect Trump: Hubris, disrespect, and overreach will cost him the ability to maneuver. The same party will control the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, as was the case for Presidents Bill Clinton in 1993, George W. Bush in 2003, and Barack Obama in 2007.

But each of his past three predecessors only had a short period of unified government owing to backlash against overreach.

In 1993, Bill Clinton campaigned as a “New Democrat,” then governed as an unreconstructed liberal, pushing for gays in the military, federal hiring quotas, tax increases, gun control, etc. His overreach resulted in the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Similarly, President George W. Bush took his 2002 mid-term victory in House and Senate races as a mandate to push his agenda, which he delegated to Tom “The Hammer” Delay, which included war in Iraq. His overreach led to a Republican wipe-out in the House, Senate, and statehouses in 2006, and set the stage for President Obama’s election in 2008.

And of course, Obama’s legislative overreach, social causes, and unilateral action through executive fiat lead to the loss of the House and a historic number of statehouses in 2010, putting Republicans in control of redistricting for the first time since 1922. He then lost the Senate in 2014.

Don’t mistake victory for mandate

The lesson is clear—mistaking victory for a mandate is a dangerous game with real consequences. President-Elect Trump may be able to get “wins” along partisan lines but he should keep in mind Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that great changes cannot be won on slim majorities.

President-Elect Trump was a liberal Democrat a few short years ago, and became a conservative Republican during the campaign. Most likely his bluster is all shtick. Last night, before he gave his acceptance speech, he had a look on his face like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” whose surprise victory caused him to exclaim, “We won! Now what do we do?” The answer is to govern.

If the pugilistic Donald Trump we saw during the campaign is the same one we see as president, America is in for a rocky four years. If, however, Trump is really a person whose only guiding star is being on the winning side of every deal, he may be the greatest bipartisan president of a generation.

Which President Trump will we see?

Michael Collins can be reached at