Surprise, surprise: Donald Trump has no bottom. Just when you think he has sunk as low as he can, he stages a rally like that atrocity in North Carolina on Wednesday night and sinks lower. But the key takeaway isn’t that he’s a demagogue or a racist: These were facts put into evidence long ago. It’s that Democrats can’t afford to take unnecessary risks, dream deferrable dreams and engage in avoidable distractions as they set about the urgent work of defeating him. The 2020 election isn’t about getting everything that Democrats want and that Americans deserve. It’s about getting rid of Trump, because the price of not doing so could be this nation’s very soul.
The Democratic Party and the Democratic candidates for president need to be smarter, more realistic and more disciplined than they are now. Enough with internal feuding. Enough with taking the president’s bait and bumbling into his traps. If he sets the terms of the political discussion, he wins.
He wants to spend the 15 months between now and Election Day talking about “the squad”: Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. Democrats mustn’t follow suit. Absolutely they should defend the four congresswomen, and make clear that they are every bit as American as Trump is. In taking issue with his leadership and finding fault with our country, they’re exercising and honoring our most dearly held rights, which the president is trampling on.
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So say that once, loud and clear. Maybe say it twice. Then move on. Trump wants to define all Democrats in terms of the squad, when they’re but a part of a diverse party and hardly its ideological proxies. So don’t let him. Don’t let all the other issues get muscled off the stage. If everyone’s talking about Omar, no one’s talking about health care or jobs: the stuff that actually turns elections and will turn this one. If Trump has his way, this campaign will be a bogus referendum on a bastard definition of patriotism. It will be a race-obsessed and racist jubilee. Don’t play along.
But, you say, his racism must be called out. A demagogue must be branded as such. Not to condemn incipient fascism is to play midwife to the real thing.
That’s a virtuous take, but is there really any reason to believe that it’s the recipe for Trump’s demise?
We used all those words in 2016 — racist, demagogue, fascist — and he won. Voters saw indelible examples of this same behavior, and he won. The Wednesday rally wasn’t a new Trump, just a bloated one. And the coming election isn’t a referendum on his character, which voters have or haven’t made their peace with. Pointing at him and shouting the direst words from the darkest thesaurus will do limited if any good.
Stop talking so much about the America that he’s destroying and save that oxygen for the America that Democrats want to create.
Stop hypothesizing about Democratic voters’ political priorities and policy appetites and look at the actual evidence of where Americans really are. That’s the 2018 midterms.
It may have minted young progressive superstars like the congresswomen in the squad, but they aren’t especially popular beyond their progressive fan clubs. More important, their victories had zilch to do with why or how Democrats regained control of Congress and have dubious relevance to how Democrats can do the same with the White House in 2020. The House members they replaced were Democrats, not Republicans, so their campaigns weren’t lessons in how to move voters from one party’s column to the other.
Other first-term House candidates’ bids did offer such lessons, so look harder at that crew. Lauren Underwood in the exurbs of Chicago, Xochitl Torres Small in southern New Mexico, Abigail Spanberger in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., and Antonio Delgado in upstate New York — these four defeated Republicans in districts where Trump had prevailed by four to 10 percentage points just two years earlier. None of them ran on the Green New Deal, single-payer health insurance, reparations or the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
They touted more restrained agendas. And they didn’t talk that much about Trump. They knew they didn’t need to. For voters offended by him, he’s his own negative ad, playing 24/7 on cable news.
Of the roughly 90 candidates on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of 2018 challengers with some hope of turning a red House district blue, just two made a big pitch for single-payer health care. Both lost. While first-time candidates endorsed by the progressive groups Justice Democrats or Our Revolution certainly won House elections last year, not one flipped a seat. The party did pick up 40 seats overall — just not with the most progressive candidates.
According to a May analysis by Catalist, a data-analysis firm, 89 percent of the Democratic vote gain in 2018 was from swing voters. That’s just one set of numbers, one way to slice the pie, but it does raise questions about the progressive insistence that partisan turnout and a surge in new voters, attracted by bold policy positions, is the path to victory in 2020.
There’s something else funky about that insistence — about the theory that a more progressive Democratic nominee would get all the votes that Hillary Clinton did in 2016 plus ones from people who stayed home in disaffection and much of the left-wing spoiler Jill Stein’s share. A more progressive nominee might lose some of the votes that Clinton did get. Who’s to say that the math, in the end, would be all that favorable?
But that hasn’t stopped the leftward lunge of leading contenders for the Democratic nomination, several of whom want “Medicare for all” and many of whom support the decriminalization of illegal border crossings.
That puts them on shaky ground. Polling has shown that when voters are told that Medicare for all would mean an end to private insurance or an increase in taxes, support for it drops below 40 percent.
And according to a Politico/Morning Consult survey published a few days ago, 51 percent of voters support the sweeping raids by ICE that the president trumpets, while just 35 percent oppose them. That suggests that anything that smacks of open borders — which is how President Barack Obama’s secretary for homeland security, Jeh Johnson, described Democratic presidential candidates’ positions in a recent op-ed essay in The Washington Post — puts those candidates at odds with public opinion. Voters see them answering Trump’s extremism with extremism of a different kind.
Which isn’t entirely wrong. Reeling from the ugliness of his actions and words — which are meant to make them reel — Democrats want to repudiate him as forcefully as possible. But that can lead to a reaction that’s neither smart politics nor good policy.
Nancy Pelosi knows this. It’s why she hasn’t been talking up the Green New Deal, single-payer insurance or impeachment, and the suggestion that this makes her some squishy centrist pushover — some musty relic from a timid era — is bunk. She has her eyes on the most meaningful prize, one she pursued successfully in the midterms: Democratic victory. And she can see that in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published a little over a week ago, just 21 percent of registered voters said that there was enough evidence for Congress to begin impeachment hearings.
So Democrats should listen to her. They should also remember Obama’s legacy correctly. I keep hearing that his 2008 election makes the case for an unconventional, daring Democratic nominee. To a certain extent, it does. But don’t forget that he in some ways ran to Hillary Clinton’s right that year, and he spoke constantly of national unity, bipartisan amity and turning down the temperature of Washington politics.
Many voters still hunger for that. Many are wiped out by the raucous reality show of this presidency. And the way to promise something different isn’t to return Trump’s fire with even more heat. It’s to be dignified and deliberative.
I wonder what would happen if the Democratic nominee simply refused to talk about Trump. No responding to whatever stupid nickname he comes up with. No sweeping denunciation of some deed of his that any sensible American already knows is wrong. Just the articulation of better solutions to America’s problems. Trump would go mad with the lack of attention. And maybe then, thank heaven, he’d go away.