It was more James Cagney than commander in chief.
The president of the United States, interviewed on Fox News, proclaimed for the American people, “It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal.” He was reacting to news that Michael Cohen, his former special counsel, admitted in court that “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” he withheld information that would have harmed Trump during the 2016 election cycle.
Trump wisely chose not to expand his remarks to a recitation of Cagney’s famous line, “Oh, that dirty, double crossin’ rat.” It was in the movie “Blonde Crazy,” whose title might remind us of other Trump challenges.
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to wonder when the real flip will happen. When will Trump’s supporters in Congress and at rallies around the country finally turn on him? The answer is probably never. Besides, it doesn’t matter. Recent history gives us plenty of examples that a clinging base can’t prevent a president from slipping anyway.
After the government’s polarizing response to Hurricane Katrina, the Washington Post spoke of President Bush’s approval dropping to a “new low.” His approval rating among Republicans? It was 78 percent. His party lost both houses of Congress in the following midterm election.
The first two years of President Obama’s administration witnessed a fresh era of vitriolic partisanship, the formation of the Tea Party movement, and furious town halls in individual congressional districts. What was his approval rating among Democrats in the final Gallup poll before they subsequently lost both houses of Congress? It was 83 percent.
In the first Gallup poll taken after the formation of the Senate Watergate Committee, President Nixon’s approval rating among Republicans was 91 percent. Even after the worst abuses were exposed — the Saturday Night Massacre, “I am not a crook,” the deleted 18 minutes of tape, the resignation of a vice president who pleaded “no contest” to tax evasion — Nixon’s final approval rating among Republicans was still 50 percent.
In comparison to these historic markers, President Trump’s most recent approval rating among voters in his party is 87 percent. That’s 9 points higher than President Bush at the low point of his approval. It’s only 4 points more than President Obama just before his party lost both houses of Congress. It’s 4 points less than President Nixon just after the Senate began the investigation that would ultimately end his presidency.
In other words, stubborn loyalty by base voters provides comfort but not a political lifeline. Democrats should stop asking when Trump’s supporters will abandon him. It doesn’t matter. He was right when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” They’ll stand by their man, swallowing the bromides of “fake news” and the “deep state” to the “witch hunt” investigation.
What matters is not their loyalty to him, but our loyalty to institutions and the rule of law. The cracks are already showing. House Democrats are poised to win midterms. After Cohen’s guilty plea and admission, plus the guilty verdict of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on eight criminal charges, some high profile Republicans advised candidates to relax their white knuckle grips on the Trump brand.
Democrats need to stay focused on winning midterms and finding the right candidate for 2020. Trump’s diehards are a distraction. Democrats need to back the integrity of the special counsel, contrast Republicans with a sweeping platform of honesty and transparency in government, and continue on the right side of protecting our election systems from foreign intrusion while Republicans seem to be napping.
As for Trump, he may find himself in another Cagney moment. In a scene taking place in a foxhole during World War I, a young soldier taking refuge shares that he just finished law school. Cagney says, “Oh, a lawyer, huh? Can you think of anything that can get us out of this hole?” Stay tuned.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist whose latest book is “Big Guns.” Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and on Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.