Democrats Are Missing The Lessons of 2016
As the 2020 Presidential election approaches, it is exposing a fundamental divide amongst Democrats about how to approach President Trump’s first term. Many Democrats act as if his administration is an immediate existential threat to the future existence of our republic. Newly famous congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embodies this panic as she maintains that Trump is pushing the country towards fascism. Meanwhile, at a recent gathering of Democratic governors, several expressed a desire to focus on policy rather than submit to hysteria. This question will likely be a major issue in the Democratic primary and, if the candidates mishandle it, could cost them a chance to mount a serious challenge against Trump.
The desire to paint Trump as such a danger to the republic is not new. Many in the Republican establishment worked hard to discredit him during the primary. These efforts failed spectacularly. In hindsight it is easy to see how voters found Trump’s promises to bring back manufacturing jobs more compelling than Bill Kristol’s bellyaching that Trump isn't a “real conservative.”
Hilary Clinton’s campaign made a similar mistake. Much of her campaign messaging centered around the message “vote for me, because Trump is mean.” Her infamous “basket of deplorables” comments reflected a larger theme of her campaign: that Trump had stirred up the dregs of American society into a tidal wave of hatred posed to overwhelm anything good about our nation. She asked for our votes by promising that she was a better person than Trump and she failed miserably.
By contrast, Donald Trump rose to the top of the Republican Primary field in large part by making promises to fix problems whose consequences were felt by many Americans. He correctly identified that cultural elites on both the right and left were presenting a vision of America that did not align with what many citizens wanted. Instead of ascending an ivory tower and lecturing the American people, he promised to bring back jobs and make America great again. Unsurprisingly, many voters were more attracted to the candidate who promised to make their country great again than the one who chastised them for being racists.
It seems that the Democrats are likely to make the same mistake in 2020. By focusing energy and attention on impeachment instead of policy, they are making the same bet that the Never Trump movement lost: that they could convince the American people that a Trump presidency would bring about the apocalypse.
The last three years have clearly demonstrated that the American people do not view Trump as the same kind of crisis that the political establishment does. This does not mean that his re-election is inevitable but the Democrats would be wise to take a different tactic. Instead of telling the American people why Trump is a bad man, tell us why he has been a bad president. As an incumbent he should be forced to defend his record and there is a good opportunity to convince the country that he hasn’t delivered on many of his promises. That would give them a plausible path to victory, however, so far it seems most Democrats prefer the hyperbole of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If they follow that path, don’t be surprised to see them swept into irrelevance just as quickly and as thoroughly as the “Never Trump” Republicans.