The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is a disaster, and that’s helping Democrats. But not how you think.

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)


There’s a narrative about our politics right now that you constantly encounter on social and political media. It goes like this: Democrats are too obsessed with the Russia investigation, or with Stormy Daniels, or they’re just too focused on “not being President Trump,” and as a result, they aren’t articulating an affirmative agenda and risk getting caught flat-footed by Trump’s supposedly rising popularity.

But this narrative is entirely wrong, and two new pieces this morning help set the record straight. Taken together, they point to a much more accurate version of what’s happening: Trump’s unpopularity does in fact remain historically abysmal. This and Trump’s many scandals are in fact helping Democrats — but not in a way that is immediately apparent and not in a manner that betrays any unhealthy Democratic obsession with those things.

The first article is by Nate Silver, and it puts Trump’s job-approval numbers in their proper perspective. You constantly read headlines and punditry claiming that Trump’s approval is rising. But, while Silver agrees that Trump’s approval has “increased slightly,” the big picture is this:

For the past 66 days, Trump’s approval rating has been somewhere between 40.0 percent and 42.1 percent, according to our tracker. It’s been toward the higher end of that range recently — but that isn’t much of range. Indeed, over the whole course of his presidency, the range Trump’s approval ratings travel in has been remarkably narrow.

If Trump’s numbers are rising, they are only doing so inside a very narrow range that remains abysmally low. And don’t forget the polling that shows strong disapproval of Trump is running higher than strong approval, which could impact disparities in voter engagement.

With Democratic optimism on the rise for a "blue wave" in 2018, here's their strategy for winning more state and national seats than Republicans. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The second piece is by Ron Brownstein, and it reports accurately on how Democrats are actually running their campaigns right now. As Brownstein notes, many Democrats think that their chances of winning this fall turn less on whether Trump gets further dragged down by scandal, and more on their ability to link the GOP’s tax cuts to its failed (but continuing) drive to roll back health coverage, which together amount to a deeply unpopular overall set of GOP priorities:

In the district-by-district battle to retake the House, many Democrats are focusing less on condemning Trump’s character than on discrediting the Republican agenda. Central to that mission is arguing that the GOP has benefited the wealthy, and burdened the middle class, with its twin legislative priorities of the past 17 months: passing a large tax cut and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

There is an additional nuance that should be noted, and it gets at how Democrats actually are capitalizing on Trump’s unpopularity. What we have seen in the last year of elections, in Virginia, in Alabama, in Pennsylvania’s 18th District and in dozens of state legislative races, is that Trump’s unpopularity is driving Democratic turnout and Democratic volunteering, and is turning white, better-educated, suburban swing voters and independents against the GOP — because alienation from Trump has led such voters to give Democrats more of a hearing. The intensity of this outpouring against Trump is undoubtedly driven in part by Trump’s scandals and his response to them, and crucially, it is happening even as Democratic candidates are not particularly focused on Trump in their own campaigns.

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In other words, Trump is doing part of the work for Democrats without their help, allowing them to focus on things such as improving health care or fortifying social insurance (as Conor Lamb did) or even on hyper-local issues (as many state legislative candidates have done). If Democrats are running against Trump, it’s subtle: They are trying to project calm, stability, decency and respect for tolerance and the rule of law, drawing an implicit contrast with Trump, and are challenging their Republican foes when they dabble in Trumpist xenophobia and veiled racism, as opposed to making it overtly all about the president.

These campaigns are unfolding outside of our debates inside the Beltway and on Twitter over how much Trump’s scandals will matter in the midterms and what Democrats should and should not be doing. Indeed, to find clear evidence of what Democrats are actually doing, look no further than how Republicans are responding to it. Savvy Democrats think that Republicans are cycling out of their tax-cut messaging, and that Trump is doubling down on the xenophobia and attacks on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, precisely because they are trying to adapt to how these Democratic candidates are actually being run by falling back on a last-ditch juice-the-base strategy.

“Trump is leaning hard into Mueller and his brand of white nationalism, which is born of the growing GOP realization that Democrats are running and winning on health care and cleaning up Washington — the things that really matter to voters,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me today.

None of this is to say Democrats will necessarily win the House and/or the Senate, though right now the former looks very plausible and the latter looks at least possible. But let’s at least get it right on what Democrats are actually doing to make it happen.

* ANOTHER DEMOCRAT GOES DOWN: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a big Trump antagonist, resigns after multiple women accuse him of physical abuse:

Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor of New York, called the allegations against Schneiderman “sickening.” … Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called the accusations of violence “abhorrent.”

Note that Democrats widely — and rightly — called on Schneiderman to step down immediately. By contrast, Kellyanne Conway is reveling in this outcome, even though the Trump White House endorsed Roy Moore.

* TRUMP IS FRUSTRATED WITH GIULIANI: Politico reports that Trump is frustrated with Rudy Giuliani for failing to shut down the Stormy Daniels mess, and indeed making it worse:

[Trump] has expressed frustration that Giuliani’s media appearances are raising more questions than they are answering, turning the story into a days-long drama … some aides said they expect the president to fire Giuliani if his behavior doesn’t change.

But Giuliani keeps telling us that things are going great!

* TRUMP MAY PULL GIULIANI OFF AIRWAVES: The Associated Press has more on Trump’s frustration with Giuliani:

Trump has begun questioning whether Giuliani … should be sidelined from television interviews … [Trump] told a confidant recently that perhaps Giuliani should “be benched” — at least temporarily — if he can’t improve his performance.

Also, Trump was so angry at Giuliani and Sean Hannity over the way they discussed the Stormy Daniels payment on the air that he privately “snapped” at both men.

* GOP IS ON EDGE ABOUT TODAY’S PRIMARY: The Post reports that national Republicans are nervous that race-baiting coal baron Don Blankenship will win today’s West Virginia Senate primary:

GOP leaders have started considering cutting ties with Blankenship if he wins, two Republicans familiar with the situation said. … Republicans are worried that his baggage could drag down other Senate contenders around the country.

If Democrats can hold on to their red-state seats like this one, that makes a Democratic majority a lot more plausible, with Nevada, Arizona and even Tennessee in play.

* TRUMP WANTS A ‘NEW’ IRAN DEAL: The New York Times reports that Trump is likely to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal by reimposing sanctions that had been lifted in exchange for Iran ending its nuke program. But:

Mr. Trump has told visitors he believes that once the current agreement is destroyed, Iran will come to the table to negotiate a new one. … even if Mr. Trump reimposes those sanctions, Europeans note that there are some delays built into the accord — a reconciliation period of about a month, and delays of 120 to 180 days before renewed American sanctions bite. … In a world of Trump brinkmanship, all that could allow time for further negotiations.

We’ll see what happens. But as the Times notes, Iran will have new demands of its own as part of any renegotiated deal.

* BIG MAJORITY OPPOSES PULLING OUT OF IRAN DEAL: A new CNN poll finds that 63 percent of Americans oppose pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. That includes people who approve of Trump (48-46), non-college whites (58-32) and older voters (59-31).

Even conservatives are divided, at 47-47, and while Republicans favor pulling out, it’s surprisingly narrow, at 51-43. So let’s not rush to proclaim that Trump’s base will love it when he pulls out.

* TRUMP IS LYING ABOUT THE IRAN DEAL: Trump likes to say that under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran would be free to develop a nuclear weapon in seven years. Salvador Rizzo explains what the deal actually does:

Trump’s assertion … that Iran would be free to build nuclear weapons afterward is simply not accurate. … Iran has pledged to never develop nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and other parts of the JCPOA — all of which Iran has committed to — run well past 2025, and key provisions apply indefinitely.

Limits on developing nuclear energy lift after a decade, but not for making weapons. As Rizzo notes, there’s a difference between skepticism about the deal’s long-term efficacy and outright lying about it.

* A PUSH FOR PRISONERS TO VOTE: The People’s Policy Project, which is doing a lot of interesting work, is rolling out a new report today arguing that it’s time for the United States to allow incarcerated people to vote:

Today, 26 European nations at least partially protect their incarcerated citizens’ right to vote, while 18 countries grant prisoners the vote regardless of the offense … Despite this growing international consensus, however, the United States — the self-proclaimed lighthouse of democracy — significantly abridges the voter franchise. Only in Maine and Vermont can prisoners participate in elections; for the vast majority of the 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons, democracy remains a spectator sport.

We keep hearing about how conservative viewpoints are excluded from representation at major news organizations. Yet viewpoints such as these arguably garner substantially less representation.

* HERE COME PREMIUM HIKES: Axios reports that health insurance premiums are expected to spike in coming months, and Trump and GOP sabotage of Obamacare is a big reason:

All signs point to steep hikes across the country, especially in rural areas. Some insurers also will likely decide to simply quit offering coverage in some parts of the country. … There’s really no denying that the repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate, coupled with some of the Trump administration’s regulatory moves, is a big driver — though not the only driver — of these staggering increases.

And rates will be finalized just weeks before the midterm elections.

* REPUBLICANS WILL OWN PREMIUM HIKES: Paul Krugman notes that GOP sabotage is basically an effort to bring down the law via a kind of “termite infestation,” and predicts:

Soon, many Americans will suffer sticker shock from their insurance policies … They’ll also hear news about declining insurance coverage. And Republicans will say, “See, Obamacare is failing.” But the problem isn’t with Obamacare, it’s with the politicians who unleashed this termite infestation — who are doing all they can to take away your health coverage. And they need to be held accountable.

Republicans will of course try this, but they now run the place, and they will own whatever happens.