June 20, 2018


In every presidency there are transitional periods, like when the economy goes from bad to worse, like when more American troops are killed every week, or like when hostages languish in Iran for more than a year. But there are also transformational periods, when a president redefines himself, creating a different perception and getting a political "bump."

The recent summit in Singapore on June 11 and 12, and President Trump's deft handling of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whom he once derided as the "Rocket Man," was definitely transformational. It has the potential to change the dynamics of the 2018 mid-term elections, and maybe even 2020. Or it could be a dud, a mere blip in history.

Until the summit, Trump was criticized for being bellicose, belligerent, ill informed, intemperate and a warmonger, and his revolving-door cabinet made him appear volatile, and seemingly not in control. The Singapore summit belies some of those assumptions, as Trump has opened a dialogue with a 34-year old tyrant who is close to having the capacity to nuke Guam, Hawaii, Portland and San Francisco. It will take time, perhaps years, but if the Korean peninsula is denuclearized it will be quite an accomplishment.

From a political standpoint, Trump's momentary "transformation" will serve to reinvigorate his base, which had grown restive and pessimistic under the onslaught of ridicule heaped on the president by the media and the liberals. The anti-Trump portion of the electorate is angry and motivated and will score heavily on Nov. 6 unless the pro-Trump base gets equally angry and motivated.

Historically, most presidencies have had transformational events, some of which rebounded to the benefit of the incumbent and his party.

NAGASAKI and HIROSHIMA: After three terms in office, President Franklin Roosevelt (D) was aging and ailing, having been a lifelong smoker and polio victim. He ran for re-election in 1944 as World War II was concluding and the Great Depression was but a memory. An astute politician, FDR never groomed a successor. There were some concerns that he would not live through a fourth term. His vice-president was Henry Wallace, an avowed socialist enamored with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Communist system. Southern conservatives and Big City bosses, at the 1944 Democratic convention, engineered Wallace's dumping and replaced him with Harry Truman, an obscure Missouri senator. The Roosevelt-Truman ticket won, and 3 months into his new term Roosevelt died.

Truman was unknown and untested. Yet when crunch time came, in August of 1945, Truman ordered the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, which killed more than 120,000 people. That ended the Pacific War and transformed Truman from a non-entity into a decisive president. Post-War economic dislocations precipitated a Republican Congress in 1946, but the feisty Truman won a new term in 1948. He then got bogged down in the Korean War, with another transformation - this time negative - after he sacked General Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to take the Korean "police action" into China. Suddenly, Truman became "soft on communism."

SUEZ CANAL: Nobody could accuse President Dwight Eisenhower (R), the World War II European commanding general, of being soft, but he had a heart attack in 1955, and the possibility that the much-reviled vice president Richard Nixon might succeed him caused great Democratic anxiety. The Suez Canal crisis in 1956, which entailed the nationalization of the canal, gave Eisenhower a bump in the 1956 election, which he won overwhelmingly. But then the Soviets orbited Sputnik, demonstrating that America was falling behind technologically, and Fidel Castro and the communists took over Cuba, demonstrating that America was failing strategically. John Kennedy used the "get moving again" mantra to beat Nixon in 1960.

CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS: The Kennedy Administration, after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, looked weak and indecisive. Were they or were they not going to take out a communist dictatorship so close to Miami? But once it was discovered in 1962 that the Soviets were building missile silos in Cuba for ICBMs that could nuke any part of America, President Kennedy had a stark choice: Either capitulate or confront. If he capitulated, he could kiss his 1964 re-election goodbye; if he confronted, he could precipitate World War III. After 10 tense days, the Soviets capitulated and turned around their ships. It was later revealed that this was due to a deal in which America removed its ICBMs from Turkey and Germany.

This, for Kennedy, was a transformative moment. He appeared tough and resolute, which was illusory, and would have easily won a second term but for events in Dallas in Nov. 1963.

THE TET OFFENSIVE: The Domino Theory was ingrained in America's foreign policy. If one country in Southeast Asia went communist, then others would supposedly follow. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations propped-up the South Vietnam government with money and "advisors," but by 1965 it was apparent that U.S. troops - like about 500,000 - would be necessary to stem encroachments by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.

The generals told President Lyndon Johnson that they were "winning the war," and Johnson told that to the American people. Johnson micro-managed the war, but refused to take necessary steps to "win" it, like bombing Hanoi, bombing the rice paddies (and starving the enemy), or mining and/or bombing Haiphong Harbor, where Soviet and Chinese supply ships were docked. Despite bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail, supplies and troops were still moving south along the Cambodian border.

In January of 1968, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army launched a major onslaught throughout South Vietnam, conclusively proving that the war was never going to be "won," that they would fight to their death, and that LBJ was a liar. The generals demanded 500,000 more troops. Johnson had two choices: Either escalate and face certain defeat or cut-and-run, and get out. Tet was transformative, and LBJ retired.
RED CHINA and MAO: From the late 1940s onward, it was standard Republican mantra that Truman and the Democrats "lost China" to Mao Zedong and the communists. "Red China" was economically isolated, barred from the United Nations, and any Democrat who challenged that policy was deemed "soft on communism." It took Richard Nixon, along with Henry Kissinger, to figure out that China was a natural ally of America against the Soviet Union. Nixon met with Mao in Feb. 1972, and that was a transformational moment in his presidency. Nixon was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1972. In dealing with Kim Jong Un, Trump is using Nixon's playbook.

IRANIAN HOSTAGES: Ongoing fallout from Watergate elected Jimmy Carter (D) as president in 1976, and he battled inflation and oil price dislocations during his term. But his stature was transformed from borderline competent to inexcusably incompetent when the Iranian government seized all employees from the U.S. embassy in Tehran in Nov. 1979 and proceeded to hold them hostage for 444 days. Carter was defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan.

COLLAPSE OF THE U.S.S.R AND GULF WAR: It was Reagan who demanded that the Berlin Wall be "torn down," and it was Reagan's massive defense spending - which was matched by the Soviets - which caused economic misery in the Soviet bloc and, by 1991, the collapse of the communist system. When consumer goods are unavailable and life is miserable the people will revolt. The same situation now exists in North Korea: Kim Jong Un is spending money on ICBMs, and the population is either subsisting or in labor camps. If Kim doesn't denuclearize, continuing economic sanctions will create economic conditions so dire that his government will fall.

Former President George H.W. Bush couldn't take credit for Reagan, but he did get a bump from the 1990-91 Gulf War, which was temporarily a transformative moment. His "shock and awe" chased the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait and back to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein went to ground, but Bush decided not to invade and occupy the country and kill Hussein, thereby making him a martyr. Bush lost re-election in 1992.

9/11 and THE IRAQ WAR: Prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush was mired in political gridlock, deemed an illegitimate president after the disputed 2000 election (in which he got fewer votes than Al Gore), and a Republican senator switched parties, handing control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats. Bush's response to the atrocity was measured and resolute, and his step-up in the War on Terror culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the downfall of Hussein. Those transformative moments insured a Bush re-election in 2004, albeit narrowly.

As for Trump, the upcoming mid-term elections will be a harbinger of his future fate. The economy is booming, with unemployment at 3.8 percent, the stock market is at 25,322, up from 18,807 when Trump was elected, the housing market has rebounded and interest rates are low. Anger toward Trump is based on his persona and his policies. It was anger toward Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and liberals in general that got him elected.

The media's constant drumbeat of derogation and vilification has gotten the anti-Trump Nation energized. It remains to be seen if the Trump Nation is still sufficiently angry to turn out on Nov. 6 and keep Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate and House.

Send an e-mal to russ@russstew art.com or visit his Web site at www.russstewart.com.