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President Donald Trump speaks Friday in the East Room of the White House in Washington. 

EVAN VUCCI, ASSOCIATED PRESS

The word “unique” is overused, Oregon Public Broadcasting political analyst Bill Lunch told a meeting of the City Club of Corvallis on Tuesday, but it applies perfectly to Donald Trump.

“We’ve never, ever in the history of the United States had a president who had no experience either in government … or in the military,” the former Oregon State University political science professor told a noontime crowd of about 75 people. “The question is: How did we get here?”

Lunch said he believes the answer has to do with economics. Pointing to research cited in a recent New York Times article, he said inflation-adjusted incomes for the highest-earning 20 percent of American workers have gone up since 1967 while everyone else has seen their paychecks shrink.

That, he suggested, left the door to the White House wide open for a political outsider such as Trump.

“For most people in the United States … incomes have declined,” Lunch said. “To me, at least, that’s a very powerful explanation.”

Lunch covered a lot of ground in his 70-minute presentation titled “Roller Coaster Politics,” but he began and ended with the nation’s 45th president.

Reviewing Trump’s performance on a number of major campaign promises, he noted that the president has so far fallen short on a pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a reversal that has revealed “an internal schism” within the Republican Party.

Trump’s promise to cut taxes is being debated on Capitol Hill, where Congress is considering the president’s tax reform proposal, many details of which have yet to be announced.

On immigration, Lunch pointed out that a travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority nations is still being tied up by court challenges questioning its constitutionality.

And Trump’s “potentially important” package of infrastructure improvements, Lunch said, has been on the back burner since this summer, when the plan’s announcement was overshadowed by former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his firing by the president.

On the escalating tensions with North Korea over that country’s nuclear weapons program, Lunch said, “That has been around for a long time, but the level of rhetoric has ratcheted up a notch or two or three under Trump.”

At the same time, Lunch said, much of Trump’s most extreme public rhetoric does not result in action, in part because politically savvy appointees such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly are privately counseling restraint.

Closer to home, Lunch said a massive health care tax passed by the Democrat-held Oregon Legislature could be unraveled if a Republican-backed referendum on the measure succeeds in making the ballot for a January special election.

“If the health care financing package is rejected by the voters — and I would not be surprised, because that’s usually what happens to tax measures — it would take about $300 million out of the state budget,” Lunch said, leaving up to 350,000 Oregonians without coverage.

Similar GOP-led efforts to refer transportation and gun control measures to the voters appear to be falling short, according to Lunch.

Meanwhile, though, the labor unions that backed the failed Measure 97 gross receipts tax initiative last fall are gearing up for another run at taxing corporate profits.

“We could have a lot of initiative and referendum questions on the ballot in November 2018,” Lunch predicted.

Handicapping next year’s governor’s race, Lunch said state Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, the most prominent Republican to throw his hat in the ring so far, could face stiff opposition in the primary from the party’s conservative wing.

Lunch also noted that current polls, at least, give Democratic incumbent Kate Brown a solid edge over whoever the Republicans might put up against her.

“At the moment — these things can certainly change, but at the moment — it looks like she will probably get re-elected whether her opponent is Buehler or somebody else.”

Lunch fielded a number of questions from the audience ranging from local politics to Electoral College reform, but in the end the conversation came back to Trump.

In response to a query about next year’s midterm congressional elections, Lunch noted that the usual dropoff in support for the president’s party after a change in power in the Oval Office might play out differently next year. That’s because the losing candidate, Democrat Hilllary Clinton, actually won the popular vote, a rarity in American politics.

On the other hand, he said, Trump’s poor showings in national opinion polls could cost his party dearly if he can’t find a way to turn those numbers around.

“Trump's approval ratings are the lowest we have seen at this point in a presidency,” Lunch said.

“If his popularity rating continues to be in the range of 38 to 40 percent, as it is now, the Republicans are going to have some real problems.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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