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Who's to Blame? Weak Leaders, Weak Institutions, Weak Voters?

A Commentary By Michael Barone

In the wake of the off-year elections, conservative analyst Yuval Levin saw no winners. "It is the weakness of all sides, and the strength of none, that shapes this moment."

You can see what he means. Donald Trump hasn't gotten everything he wanted -- not even the wall! -- from the Republican House of Representatives. And on one issue or another, he'll probably get something from Rep. Nancy Pelosi's Democrats he couldn't get from outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan's Republicans.

Now maybe House Democrats will overplay their hand and help Trump win re-election in 2020. And maybe Democrats, faced with a crowded field of presidential candidates, will choose an unelectable nominee.

But even though Republicans gained Senate seats and are in good shape to confirm conservative judges, Trump is weakened. Republicans lost just about every House seat he carried in 2016 by 5 percent or less. And he got only 46 percent of the popular vote.

Do the math. Forty-six minus five is 41. No way a 41 percent candidate gets 270 electoral votes in a two-way race.

It doesn't have to be this way. CNN analyst Harry Enten points out that President Trump's job approval on the economy at this point is the second highest of recent presidents -- and his overall approval is the second lowest. The obvious advice: Behave in a more dignified manner.

But Trump is not alone among national leaders in behaving in a way that makes him weaker than he might be. It seems to be a common, though not quite universal, ailment.

Consider British Prime Minister Theresa May, who came to office after Brits voted in record numbers to leave the European Union. She has hopelessly bungled negotiations with the EU, refusing to prepare for a hard exit, which might have evoked concessions, and has ended up with an agreement that doesn't let Britain leave EU supervision without EU permission. Parliament looks set on voting this down, and the Conservative Party may be ready to vote May out.

Across the channel, French President Emanuel Macron has seen his job approval disappear amid demonstrations against his proposed gas tax increase. Americans whose European travel is confined to historic capitals don't realize that most European voters live in suburbs and exurbs and drive to malls and work -- sort of like the United States outside New York City.

Macron, who has beaten back challenges from unions in antiquated industries, evidently doesn't understand today's la France profonde, beyond the elite Paris precincts he's inhabited all his life.

Macron's term in office has nearly four years to run, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in power since 2005, has one foot out the door. She's resigned as head of her Christian Democratic Union party after recent electoral disasters, and she may not last long as the head of government.

Her reputation as a sensible moderate is already in shambles after two unforced blunders. One was the decision, after Japan's 2011 tsunami, to shut down Germany's nuclear power plants. Cloudy Germany, with intermittent wind and solar, has had to import dirty American coal, and its carbon emissions have risen while ours have fallen.

Merkel's major mistake, however, was her unilateral 2015 decision to allow -- and encourage -- some 1 million migrants, mostly male and Muslim, to surge into Germany. Hopes that they'd provide the skilled industrial manpower that Germany's low birth rates haven't have proven predictably unfulfilled, while the politically correct news media's attempts to conceal their crimes and violent attacks have, after initial success, failed.

If Donald Trump faces difficulties from defying establishment mores, May, Macron and Merkel face rejection for grovelingly accepting them.

Can others do better? New presidents are about to take office in the Western Hemisphere's third- and second-most populous nations, Mexico's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico on Dec. 1 and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro on Jan. 1. Both were considered political pariahs -- AMLO (as he is called) on the left, Bolsonaro on the right -- before they were elected earlier this year.

AMLO has proved constructive by encouraging outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto to complete renegotiation with the U.S. and Canada of NAFTA, and Bolsonaro has made some impressive appointments. Both seem to be pleasing their own constituencies while appealing to the larger electorate.

That's not a feat Trump seems interested in attempting, or one that Europe's three M's have succeeded in maintaining. What's to blame: institutional failure, voter fecklessness or just leaders' personal weaknesses? Or some combination of all three?

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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