Opinion writer

When he delivers the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Trump will reach out to his opponents in a spirit of unity, exploring areas where we can put aside our differences and solve problems together, as the American people so desperately want.

Kidding! We all know that’s not what he’ll do. The State of the Union may have a line or two about our common destiny or some such, but like all of Trump’s speeches and pretty much everything he says, it will almost certainly be intended to create and maintain division.

With a new Democrat entering the 2020 presidential race every few days and the largest TV audience he’ll have all year, this address will be the unofficial start of Trump’s reelection campaign.

And as they look toward that election, Democrats need to decide not only who will represent them but also what they want the public to believe about the president. Since Trump provides such a target-rich environment of character flaws, incompetence, mismanagement and a general air of crisis, there are multiple ways Democrats might choose to attack him, some of which would be more effective than others.

We’ve obtained an early look at some memos in which the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the 501(c)(4) arm of the most influential progressive think tank, lays out the message it thinks will be most effective against Trump. The memos focus mainly on the idea that Trump broke the promises he made to the public during the 2016 campaign; those broken promises will form the foundation of the case the organization makes against him. The fund even has a website with shareable graphics.

I think this is an interesting way to frame the argument for a number of reasons. Here’s the organization’s synopsis:

The spotlight on these promises will synthesize what are already the American people’s worst perceptions of him, namely that he is dishonest; that contrary to his “populist” campaign rhetoric, he is primarily concerned with helping the wealthiest and big corporations rather than the middle- or working class; and that he is personally corrupt, running a corrupt government. [...]

Most notably on the economy, candidate Trump made grand unequivocal promises that he would raise taxes on the wealthy including himself; that no more factories would close in America; that every decision he made would be guided by raising wages; that every American would get health coverage; and that he would crack down on Wall Street. In every instance, he has pursued policies that would do exactly the opposite.

There’s ample evidence in Trump’s own statements for these claims, things such as “Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us. We’re going to tax Wall Street,” which he said in January 2016. But the question isn’t whether you can make this case but whether this is what you’d choose to be the centerpiece of your argument against him.

The most important feature of this argument is that it isn’t really aimed at liberals. Yes, liberals object to what Trump has done on the economy, but if you’re saying Trump shouldn’t be reelected because he broke his promises, your primary target is people who believed those promises when they were made. As a liberal, I’m not mad that Trump broke his promises to me, because I never believed them in the first place. But saying “He broke his promises” allows a Trump voter to agree without feeling like they were foolish for voting for him in the first place.

That’s probably wise. As tempting as it is to say, “Anyone who believed what Trump said was an idiot,” you can’t win people over if you begin by insulting them. But it does assume that there are people who voted for Trump who will now be open to voting for a Democrat.

This line also declines to focus on Trump’s personality, apart from noting how often he has lied about the things he promised. Recall that in 2016, Hillary Clinton spent a great deal of time arguing that Trump’s character, temperament and views rendered him unfit for the presidency, regularly assailing his ignorance, misogyny, racism, impulsiveness and recklessness. Clinton was right about everything she said about him, but in hindsight it appears that she might have done better to focus less on his personality and more on a familiar argument that he would work to expand the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful at the expense of the regular people he was claiming to represent.

That would have sounded much the same as arguments Democrats had made effectively against candidates like Mitt Romney, so perhaps it was less appealing because it didn’t seem to capture the unique threat Trump represented. But with Democratic proposals to raise taxes on the rich winning the support of huge majorities in polls, Democrats seem to believe that this is the most fruitful avenue to pursue.

Thus, it is that CAP’s proposed attack line on Trump focuses heavily on his broken promises about the economy and health care, as detailed in a brief laying out those promises and how he fell well short of them.

It’s also important to remember that groups such as CAP, not to mention the Democratic nominee, can focus on such broken promises, secure in the knowledge that they don’t need to make the case that Trump is a repellent human being who is unfit for the presidency. That’s apparent every day in news coverage of his actions and his own words, and with Trump’s approval ratings in the 30s, Democrats may not need to convince voters that he’s a bad guy.

In the past, Democrats have sometimes forgotten that in politics it’s necessary to simplify things. Trump understands this better than anyone, which is why when he wants to attack you, he’ll find a single word to sum up his criticism (“Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin' Ted,” “Liddle Marco”). He has never suffered from any illusions about the voting public’s capacity for complex thinking.

I can’t say yet if “He broke his promises” is the single most effective argument to make against Trump, but it might not be a bad place to start.