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Democrats Should Stop Drinking Hemlock

When your opponent embraces egregiously unpopular policies, don't get in his way by showcasing your own.
September 30, 2019
Democrats Should Stop Drinking Hemlock
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

By any measure of human worth, Donald Trump should lose in 2020. But that does not mean he will—especially if, gripped by ideological rapture, Democrats fumble the issues voters care about most. 

 Despite the current fever over impeachment,Trump is exceedingly unlikely to be convicted by a Republican Senate, Come Election Day, Democrats can win only by prevailing on the substantive everyday concerns which matter to Americans at large, not by reprising impeachment or placating the party’s immutably adamant progressives.

That Trump’s approval ratings are stuck in the 40s does not, in itself, augur his defeat. The operative word is “stuck”—they may be low, but they’re stable, more floor than ceiling. Nor are they fatal: that range is where Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama hovered at a similar distance from election day.

An election is a choice, not a referendum. And Trump stands before us in his noxious singularity. On the day of reckoning, Reagan and Obama had someone to beat who proved eminently beatable. So may Trump. 

Incumbent presidents in times of perceived prosperity usually win. Despite its manifest inequities, the Trump economy has areas of strength: low inflation and unemployment, continuing expansion,gyrating but generally bullish markets. Because of demographic sorting, Trump could, yet again, lose the popular vote but carry the Electoral College by persuading critical voters in a handful of states—most likely Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida—to stick with the devil they know.

That’s Trump’s plan. He is campaigning heavily in swing states; using Twitter to bypass the media; leveraging his enormous advantage in campaign funding—a seemingly inexhaustible resource driven largely by small donors—to unleash a tsunami of targeted ads on Facebook and Twitter. His message is simple and visceral: Democrats are unpatriotic socialists who pander to minorities, illegal immigrants, and coastal elites—from whom only he can save the real America.

To combat this message and win the states that matter, Democrats must define themselves, targeting those voters they most need to persuade: suburbanites; Hispanics and African-Americans of all ages, and that critical slice of white working-class voters not bonded to Trump. For the latter two demographics, that requires economic policies that promise opportunity and security for all.

In particular, Democrats must reclaim the trust of voters who see them as elitists unconcerned with their betterment. That means flipping Trump’s script: that he’s the one who panders to the rich and connected;  while it’s Democrats who would redress economic inequities through practical and achievable measures. 

To do so, Democrats must reconcile their most ardent progressives to the necessity of winning. The party’s most loyal—and indispensable—partisans include moderate-to-liberal voters who are majority nonwhite. Like most Americans, including swing voters, they are not fervent ideologues frenzied by Twitter. Job one for Democrats is expiating America of Trump. That is the quickest and surest way to improve American lives—not waging internecine war for the soul of the party as defined by a fervent minority. 

In that ultra-progressive lotusland, Americans are dying to abolish private health insurance, decriminalize the border, provide free health care for illegal immigrants, and enact a gauzy version of the Green New Deal. But the voters that Democrats actually need are hardly clamoring for those things. Polling consistently shows these measures to be widely unpopular; even many who like them suspect, quite sensibly, that this wish list would prove exceedingly difficult to enact. 

What Democratic voters do like, surveys affirm, includes universal access to health care, humane immigration policies, concrete action to combat climate change; stricter gun laws, and reasonable access to abortion. Trump opposes them all. So why not use that to beat him over the head? After all, that’s what Democrats did in 2018 to carry Trump-friendly districts.

The lessons of 2018 discredit the foolish notion that because Trump labels Democrats socialists, they might as well sound like socialists. It actually matters what candidates say. Were it otherwise, voters would not distinguish between single-payer and a public option.

Strangely enough, they do. It’s political suicide to recast a presidential campaign as a forum for re-educating the recalcitrant. If you’re explaining too much, you’re losing. So make Trump do that instead. 

That doesn’t mean eschewing progress, or progressivism. Yascha Mounk puts it plainly in a piece at the Atlantic: “To displace Trump and effect radical change, Democrats need to adopt a rather simple strategy: Champion the many progressive policies that are highly popular—and scrupulously resist those are clearly unpopular.” Imagine that. 

Nor is this an argument for one candidate over another—for example, moderate Joe Biden over progressive Elizabeth Warren. It does mean that any candidate with talent—which Warren has an abundance—should, in a general election, show flexibility in pursuing progressive ends. As Warren herself has allowed, “there are a lot of different pathways” to achieving universal health care.

When your opponent embraces egregiously unpopular policies, don’t get in his way by showcasing your own. Trump’s advocacy for the unpopular seems to amplify its unpopularity—as demonstrated by his efforts to kill Obamacare, launch ill-considered trade wars, eviscerate environmental standards, separate kids from parents, and embrace racism with the bilious bluster of a village bigot. Let him self-destruct by himself.

Consider six issues where Democrats virtually can’t lose, unless they try: health care; taxes; climate change; immigration; gun safety—and Trump himself.

Health care epitomizes Trump’s feckless fidelity to the worst his party has to offer. In exit polls after 2018 election, nearly 60 percent of voters said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to protect those with pre-existing conditions; unsurprisingly, those voters backed Democratic candidates in House races by 89 percent to 4 percent. In 2020, the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare gives Democrats an inestimable advantage.

All Democrats need to do is embrace a public option favored by 69 percent of Americans. The only way to blow this issue is by insisting on erasing private health insurance: When the great majority of voters don’t like a proposal, don’t try to jam it down their throats simply because you think they’re wrong, especially in an area of life so intimate and important. 

One of Trump’s salient vulnerabilities on the economy is his tax cut for corporations and wealthy. It exploded the deficit without providing the corporate investment proclaimed as its principal virtue. More fundamental, it starkly exposes Trump as a tool of the GOP’s donor classes, disguising his obeisance to the wealthy behind a pose of pseudo-populism.

With the tax cut as fulcrum, Democrats can run against the fusion of disproportionate political and economic power in the hands of a wealthy few, calling for a more equitable tax system to finance programs that provide opportunity for the many. 

What Democrats must avoid is embracing the label of socialism – which, a Pew survey unsurprisingly affirms, alienates more voters than it attracts. The party’s preferred mantra is clear: Make capitalism work for all. 

Ever more Americans believe that climate change is an existential threat. They read the verdict of climate scientists; they see ominous changes in our global environment.Yet Trump has actively repressed climate science. His administration is a haven for climate change deniers. His EPA administrators have been industry shills, and the first was blatantly corrupt. He has ignored the explicit warnings of our government’s own scientists about the burgeoning threat to our planet.

If anything, Trump seems resolved to accelerate global warming. He has frozen fuel efficiency standards for cars, cut back on the regulation of methane gas emissions, eased restrictions on coal burning power plants. This isn’t just environmental insanity—it’s political myopia. 

A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that 56 percent of Americans believe that climate change is an emergency, including 74 percent between 18 and 34. In particular, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll reveals that 86 percent of teenagers believe that humans are causing climate change —and that over half feel fearful or angry. This is no surprise; no other issue so clearly menaces the world as they will come to know it.

The political risk for Democrats is embracing a vague version of the Green New Deal which, while lacking salient specifics, contains  goals of dubious relevance—such as a federal jobs guarantee, family and medical leave, paid vacations for all. These appendages make the GND an easy target for mockery and cries of government overreach. And for all its ambitious promises of a carbon-free future, it fudges on a centerpiece of most proposals to combat climate change—a carbon tax.

Democrats need a program more persuasive—and concrete—than the gauzy utopianism of the GND. They should finesse the political difficulties of a carbon tax by promising to use the proceeds to offset its costs to ordinary Americans. Other measures could be packaged with an infrastructure and jobs program: retrofitting buildings, retooling public transportation, and building a clean-energy grid. Further proposals should include funding research into green energy solutions; imposing federal standards on appliances to reduce energy waste; and requiring automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles as we transition toward electric cars.

Most Americans want to seize our environmental future. They simply want answers they can believe in—and Democrats are the only ones trying to provide them.

Immigration is Trump’s signature issue, the progressive advocacy group group showed that more than 60 percent of voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—so essential to Trump’s re-election—believe that America should be a place of refuge.

So how can Democrats screw this up? Simple. Here, more numbers:

A May 2018 Harvard-Harris poll shows that 61 percent of registered voters feel that our border security is inadequate. This year Gallup found 75 percent of Americans want to hire additional border agents, and a Fox News poll found that 60 percent want to spend more on border security, other than on a wall. In a 2018 Quinnipiac survey, 81 percent of respondents said that border security is important.

Given these sentiments, Democratic calls to decriminalize the border or “abolish ICE” are inexcusable as politics or policy. They are widely unpopular for the best of reasons: a sovereign nation has the right to protect its borders through a system of laws that provides reasonable criteria for immigration and asylum.

In contrast, the elements of sound Democratic policies are straightforward and compelling.

Democrats must say that immigrants help make this country work, and always have—and that many of our hospitals, clinics, daycare centers, hotels, and retirement homes are staffed by immigrants. Specifically, they should propose a path to citizenship for Dreamers, legal status for undocumented immigrants who observe our laws, humane treatment of refugee families, an end to child separation, prompt and compassionate resolution of asylum claims, and American aid to help relieve the terrible conditions in Central America from which so many refugees are fleeing. But they must also affirm that national security demands secure borders; that the number of new residents should reflect what our economy can absorb; and that we should expeditiously deport undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. 

Thus armed, they can prosecute Trump for his inhumanity. What kind of president imposes systematic abuse that traumatizes children for life? What kind of president treats refugees in ways barred for POWs under the Geneva Convention, denying basic health care, sanitation and medication, permitting sexual assault, and causing death for adults and children alike? Democrats can rally Americans to affirm the basic human decency Trump so obviously lacks—through which he shames us all. 

The gun safety debate, as well, is infused with questions about our national humanity. For the first time in decades, Democrats own a significant edge on gun regulation, including among critical swaths of suburbanites.

More Americans trust the Democrats than Trump to protect them from gun violence: 82 percent favor red flag laws, 60 percent want an assault weapons ban, a like percentage supports outlawing gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and an overwhelming 93 percent desire universal background checks. Six in 10 Americans are now worried about a mass shooting in their community.

Democrats lose support only when they advocate mandatory buybacks of assault weapons. Whatever one’s personal sympathies, it is well to be leery of a program that jeopardizes the more popular and achievable measures which, If passed, can crack the gun lobby’s stranglehold on Congress. 

All this raises the ultimate issue: how to run against Trump the man. The widespread frisson over his leadership symbolizes a deeper problem—Trump himself.

Trump’s voracious omnipresence is sickening Americans at large. Our increasingly pervasive feelings of sadness, anger, depression, and fear are the poisoned fruits of his pathological presidency—his ceaseless insults, lies, tantrums, narcissism, tribalism, racism, callousness, cruelty, changes of personnel, reversals of policy, contradictory versions of reality and, permeating it all, his ineradicable disloyalty to anything but self—including to his constitutional obligations as president, and to America itself. 

Democrats must not respond in kind. Rather, they should rally Americans by promising an end to our collective trip down Trump’s rabbit hole—the terrible sense that, like Trump himself, America has become unhinged.

Democrats must insist that Trump cannot be allowed to forever change our national essence in his image. Then they can win in the best of ways: by promising a renewed decency and stability that, once more, would allow us all to seek our better selves, in a better country.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.