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The Breakup

July 9, 2019
The Breakup

It was bound to happen. 

Like a summer romance, this relationship always felt doomed to fail. Brought together by little more than the maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Never Trumpers and Democrats seem like they’re on the verge of a break up. 

But unlike during the Kavanaugh hearing when both sides decided to go on a break, this time feels like it could be splitsville, for reals. And like the divorce of that nice couple on Facebook you knew from high school, the drama is playing out in front of everyone on social media.

Sometimes it’s sarcastic and passive aggressive: 

Other times cocksure and smug: 

Sometimes it’s delivered with a maddening liberal dose of condescension. Take this recent Washington Post op-ed by Eugene Robinson: 

Never-Trump Republicans and independents may be shocked to hear this, but the Democratic Party is likely to nominate a Democrat for president. That means they’re not going to nominate someone who thinks exactly like a Never-Trump Republican.

Break out the smelling salts. I think several refugees from the GOP, pontificating on Twitter and the nation’s leading op-ed pages, just fainted dead away.

But before we start divvying up our possessions and deciding who gets custody of the dog, we should consider that maybe instead of irreconcilable differences, what we have here is a failure to communicate. 

I don’t speak for Frum and French and Kristol, but for my own part it’s always been clear that the eventual Democratic nominee will be someone who has little to offer most conservatives on the policy front. For Never Trumpers, such as my friend Matt Lewis, some of these Democrats’ policies—like support for late-term abortion—might be deal breakers.

But what Never Trumpers have been arguing, generally, isn’t that the Democrats should nominate someone who will make them (the Never Trumpers) happy, but that they should nominate someone who a majority of Americans in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida will be happy to vote for. 

Because if Never-Trump type Republicans want a candidate whose policies broadly align with their own preferences, they have one. His name is Donald J. Trump.

I would generally not prefer socialized medicine or intrusive government regulation. I would prefer a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. Tax cuts are, in theory, fine (though the Trump tax cut was pretty irresponsible).

What people like me have decided is that despite the policy goodies we get with Trump, despite the enormous social and professional pressure to pledge allegiance and kiss the ring, the larger costs and risks of Trump’s presidency vastly outweigh the real positive goods he has delivered to Republicans and conservatives.

There aren’t enough tax cuts and judges in the world to justify a president who stands on the stage with Vladimir Putin and sides against America’s intelligence community; who ignores, if not invites, foreign interference in our elections and normalizes unprecedented levels of corruption and incompetence; who abdicates moral leadership both at home and abroad; who lies and obstructs justice and then lies about obstructing justice.

As a result, we Never Trumpers, like Democrats, believe it would be better for the country if Trump were to lose the next election. Would we rather he lose to a Republican primary opponent? Yes. Would we rather he lose to a Mike Bloomberg-style centrist? Sure. But unless one of those options materializes, we know that the most likely scenario in which Trump is defeated is in a loss to a Democrat.

So when we say that this or that Democrat seems “better,” we’re not making an ideological value-statement. Again: If that’s what we cared about, we’d just vote to Keep America Great. No, we’re making the case that the Democratic nominee should be the man or woman with the best chance of beating Trump and getting elected president in 2020.


We know that many Democrats think, as Robinson does, that “if Never-Trump Republicans were such brilliant political analysts, they’d never have lost control of their party to Trump in the first place.”

And fair enough. But, you know, if Democrats were such brilliant political analysts, they’d never have lost to Trump in the first place, either. 

So here we are. 

Yes, Donald Trump is unpopular compared to most first-term presidents. Do you know what else is unpopular? Eliminating private health insurance, late-term abortions, the Green New Deal, open borders, and free health care for illegal immigrants. (This isn’t my opinion. Go look at the polling.) 

And this is what we Never Trumpers can’t quite get our heads around strategically: A majority of Americans support access to abortion in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, action to address climate change, permanent status for DACA recipients, a pathway to citizenship for people who came to the U.S. illegally, modest reforms on guns, and universal access to healthcare (though support for that last line-item drops to 13 percent if it means eliminating private health insurance). 

Isn’t that a progressive enough agenda? Because that entire list is there for the taking, if Democrats want it. But start pushing those policies out to the edges, and suddenly what you have is deeply unpopular. From where we sit, outside the party process, it seems pretty obvious that Democrats can beat Trump and have a chance to enact a progressive agenda that is broadly popular. Or they can champion one that isn’t, and lose.

And right now they seem intent choosing the story that ends up with President Trump for five more years. Or nine. Who knows!

The best argument for going Full Prog is the idea that the real reason Hillary Clinton lost was because she wasn’t progressive enough and didn’t inspire the Democrat base.

I mean, maybe you can believe this, if you hate science. But in addition to the data, there are two powerful contrary arguments.

First, you don’t need 10 million more voters in California, New York, and Massachusetts. No one is going to eliminate the Electoral College between now and November 2020. In order to beat Trump, Democrats need average voters in Midwestern swing states to either vote for their nominee, or be willing to stay home.

Second, Democrats just picked up those swing voters in 2018! They know they can do it! All they had to do was run a slate of reasonably moderate candidates who campaigned on protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions and providing a constitutional check on Trump. These same Trump-skeptical independents and previously Republican-leaning voters in midwestern states who ran into the arms of the Democrats in the midterms are likely to pick the next president, too. 

Now, could Democrats win those voters in 2020 by running the most extreme candidate available? Sure, I guess. Anything is possible.

But what it all comes down to is this: If you’re a Democrat, do you view the possibility of electing a more progressive president as worth the risk of reelecting Trump?

Here’s where I wonder if maybe this entire relationship was doomed from the start.

Never Trumpers are politically homeless today, roaming around Reagan 35X like a pack of hobos. All because we weren’t willing to trade a political agenda we more-or-less agreed with for a morally, intellectually, and temperamentally unfit president. 

Then we look up and see progressives saying, Trump is a unique threat to our constitutional order! Authoritarianism is real! The liberal compact is in danger! But we really want single payer, so  . . . let’s roll the dice!

But my Democratic friends can’t really believe that, can they? They haven’t fallen for the normalization of Trump to the point where they now think he’s nothing worse than a trash TV version of Mitt Romney? Right? Bueller? Bueller?

Instead, maybe the problem is that liberals just don’t want to hear these arguments from people like us. That’s fine. Take it from Jon Chait, then, who is awfully clear-eyed about what the Democratic presidential candidates are doing to their electability:

[T]hese positions would likely be serious liabilities in a general election. What’s more, none of them would appear to stand any plausible chance of enactment in the next administration, given that the (current) House majority and (prospective, unlikely) Senate majority both require the support of Democrats far to the right of the presidential field. So these risks the candidates are taking do not bring with them a concurrent benefit. They’re not laying the ground for a sweeping new progressive agenda they can pass in 2021. They’re merely seeding Donald Trump’s attack ads.

At least as things stand now, it seems to me that our differences are reconcilable. Because ultimately, Never Trumpers and Democrats want the same thing. And like staying together for the kids, we should stay together for the country. We can fight over marginal tax rates later, after America has restored its basic political norms and no one has to wonder about what the commander-in-chief will do should he lose his reelection.

And at the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter what Never Trumpers do. We’re a hashtag, not a voting block. What matters is what Democrats do after they take a good, long look in the mirror and contemplate all of the apocalyptic things they’ve said about Trump over the last three years.

And then decide whether or not they meant them.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.