Dems in 2020: Run on Issues, Not on Trump - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Dems in 2020: Run on Issues, Not on Trump

Dems in 2020: Run on Issues, Not on Trump

By Jennifer Psaki and Sean Culligan


Because if candidates on the left want to win, this is what they must do.

By Jennifer Psaki and Sean Culligan

Jennifer Psaki is a former White House communications director who served under President Barack Obama.

Back in the summer of 2018, I sat in an ornate conference room in the Capitol with other longtime Democratic consultants and pollsters talking about the state of the 2018 race for the House. At the time, the energy and environment felt like it was strongly in our favor. There were competitive candidates who were not even on the radar just a year earlier, and health care, the issue that had been a political anchor around the necks of the Obama White House when I worked there, was far and away the winning issue on the campaign trail. 

There were obvious questions, of course, about the Mueller investigation. Should Dems talk about that more? Is it a game-changer? Will it ultimately tilt races in swing districts? But none of that mattered because candidates were not talking about Russia influencing the election, or Donald Trump’s cozy relationship with President Vladimir Putin, or even the inexplicable meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials at Trump Tower. Why? Because it did not come close to the level of importance that access to affordable health care, protecting pre-existing conditions or fighting against unfair tax cuts to corporations on the backs of the middle class. A pre-election national Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans thought health care was extremely or very important to their vote — the top issue — while the Russia investigation ranked No. 12, at 45 percent. It was health care and taxes that brought Abigail Spanberger, Lizzie Fletcher, Colin Allred, Cindy Axne and many more Democrats in swing and red districts to Washington.

We must run against an administration that wants to take away health care for millions.

So where does that leave us now? Well, if you listen to Trump, you would believe that the four-page memo put out by his appointed attorney general on Sunday not only exonerates him of all wrongdoing — it doesn’t — but also bolsters his chances for re-election and spells trouble for Democrats in swing districts across the country. 

“Many Democrat partisans will refuse to believe it was all a big hoax,” Republican strategist Seth Weathers writes in this OZY op-ed. “The same cannot be said for millions of Independents and moderate Democrats who are not heavily invested in the Democratic Party. They are going to take a hard look at what the Party of Witch Hunts put the American people through for the past two years.”

There is no question the Mueller report will help Trump lock in his base, but they weren’t faltering there anyway.


Trump advisers’ spin is that the Mueller report will help him win back suburban districts where Republicans were pummeled in 2018. The inconclusive nature of the memo’s findings on obstruction of justice means that there will be hearings in the House, and a continuing drumbeat of demands for the release of the full report, including Mueller’s findings on obstruction and explanations of the Trump team’s sketchy relationship with Russia. But the bigger problem for Trump is this: The report and his inclination to give Putin wet kisses, instead of condemning Moscow’s intervention in the U.S. election, was not what lost him voters, so there’s no reason to believe that a warmed-over summary memo will help win them back.

But this isn’t just on Trump. This also affects the Democratic strategy for 2020. It would be far too easy to gin up calls for impeachment and firings to boost fundraising and generate buzz for second-tier candidates trying to climb the ladder. But running on impeachment or the unfairness of the Barr summary of the Mueller report is not a winning strategy for the long term. And Democrats can beat Trump with or without the full release of the report.

That said, Dems on the Hill, and even on the trail, should continue to demand the full report. The American people deserve it, even if the clamor is currently left to the most hardcore of activists. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proved herself to be more than capable of playing Trump and the Republicans on her own. She has deftly pushed back the clamoring in her own caucus and kept the focus on the core issues that are already winning for the Democrats. The House Judiciary Committee and House Oversight Committee are already deep in the process of hearings and investigations into the corruption of the network around Trump, from the inaugural committee to the financial investments of his own family.

Finally, the best candidates and campaigns are consistent and clear in their message about why they are running and how they are different from their opponent. That was a driver behind then Sen. Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign in 2008.

But even the most consistent campaigns require agility, and every strategy can be tweaked. So, if the full report is released and Republicans in the Senate start peeling off to embrace calls for impeachment, or if town halls nationwide see people from both sides suddenly demanding that Trump leave office, that will be a sign that it’s time to re-evaluate.

In the meantime, Democrats running for president should stay the course. The most important Department of Justice action this week might not be the Mueller report summary, but the DOJ court filing Monday declaring that the entire Affordable Care Act should be struck down as unconstitutional. We must run against an administration that wants to take away health care for millions.

Democrats’ platform on the issues — health care, middle-class tax cuts, climate change — stand head and shoulders above President Trump’s. For now, candidates should leave the alligator wrestling to the swamp of Washington, where it belongs.

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