Why you should care
Because Democrats should avoid a pendulum reaction when it comes to Trump.
Much has been written about Donald Trump’s hostile and complete takeover of the Republican Party. But if this week’s debates are an indicator, Trump has also led to the transformation of the Democratic Party.
Candidates are emboldened by the siege the Trump presidency has laid at their doors. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have set the contours of the policy debate, running on ambitious proposals: Medicare for All, free college and a tax on wealth and investments — damn the political capital it would take to pass and implement them. Moderate candidates, once seen as battleground-state boons, are now viewed as afterthoughts handing out breadcrumbs from the sidelines.
That aspirational-versus-achievable contrast raged again on the second night of debates. The front-runner, former vice president Joe Biden, faced an onslaught of critics saying his plans were hardly ambitious enough. Sen. Kamala Harris, who designed and implemented a re-entry program for nonviolent drug offenders and bias training for police officers, was called an opponent of criminal justice reform. Biden questioned why Julian Castro wasn’t talking about family separations at the border four years ago, an odd statement considering Castro was secretary of Housing and Urban Development at the time. And Castro turned it back on Biden, asking why Biden hadn’t stepped in as vice president.
The way some Democratic candidates are playing it, if Trump is going to build a wall, comprehensive immigration reform isn’t enough — they need to decriminalize the border. If Trump is going to pass Medicare cuts, they’re going to bring everyone into the Medicare system whether they want to or not. If he’s going to gut the Department of Education, they’ll make college free for everybody, even the children of billionaires. Propose anything less, and Democrats are accused of being timid Republican mimics.
Democrats win by being aspirational in their vision while still listening to the voters who will decide the election.
The energy, diversity and generational change in the Democratic party that Trump’s election has sparked were overdue and are powerful assets leading into 2020. But Democrats shouldn’t allow policy vision to be a pendulum reaction to Trump. What is needed is a forward-looking vision that speaks to the heart of the challenges facing America today and those on the horizon.
Democrats can respond to what I see as Trump’s hollow values and mobilize the constituencies he has marginalized against him without becoming a foil. They can lay out a future agenda that ensures globalization and automation won’t hollow out middle-class families; chart out an aggressive path to renewables that addresses the threat of climate change; transform the education system to train students for today’s workforce; prevent states from rolling back women’s health protections; and forge a better path for immigrants. Democrats must reinvigorate their alliances so that we do not enable and accelerate China’s rise — and do all of these things in a way that allows us to achieve goals without massive societal disruption or taking on too many limitlessly resourced special interests at the same time.
Democrats should couple their unique vision with a contrast on Trump’s character and broken promises. Trump didn’t serve working-class Americans as he promised — his only major legislative accomplishment was a corporate tax cut that trickled down in board rooms, not middle-class households. He didn’t drain the swamp; he made it rain for his political cronies, his business and his family. And his violent and demeaning rhetoric has led to a resurgence in hate crimes.
Democrats win by being aspirational in their vision while still listening to the voters who will decide the election. Bold but not brash. President Obama proved that you didn’t need to pander to a Republican worldview on issues like holding Wall Street accountable or transitioning from fossil fuels. The left needs a candidate whose vision and charisma can energize and mobilize young voters and Democrats who only vote sporadically and whose ideas are palatable enough to voters who swung from Bill Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump.
That’s a more powerful argument than a gut-it-out fight declaring fellow Democrats morally bankrupt because they’re committed to a different timeline on getting to broader health care coverage or what to do years after they’ve passed immigration reform. The second night of the debate was about as productive as From Dusk Till Dawn, where the remains of the candidates didn’t make particularly clear who the victor was.
There’s a debate to be had about the substance and aggressiveness of Democrats’ policy vision, but it should always turn back to the urgent need to defeat Trump and commonalities between the candidates on the left. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was right to end by saying it was a false choice to pit progressives against pragmatists. “You can have both,” she said in her closing statement.
Obama proved you can transform the electorate and that there are new voters to be found. During the 2018 midterms, 62 percent of voters who voted for the first time voted for Democrats. But we shouldn’t discount independents. In 2016, Clinton won the popular vote by 2 points. But in 2018, Democrats won the national vote by 7 points. Almost 5 percent of that difference came from voters who moved from Trump in 2016 to Democrats in 2018.
A nominee who can reach both constituencies is the Democrats’ most powerful answer to Donald Trump. That will be the test of the primaries. They’ll enter the general election a lot stronger if they can compete not just in California and New York City but also in the industrial Midwest and the demographically shifting Sunbelt.
Ben LaBolt is a partner at Democratic communications agency Bully Pulpit Interactive and the former national press secretary for President Obama’s re-election campaign.