Opinion writer

The signs are mounting that President Trump’s reelection prospects have been weakened by two unmistakable trends: His grip on the industrial Midwest is growing increasingly shaky, even as he is pushing his alienation of the groups that powered the Democrats’ 2018 victory — minorities, young people and college-educated whites — to new heights.

True to form, some Democrats are responding to these developments in the worst conceivable way. They are feeding the impression that they face a major dilemma: They must choose between appealing to one or the other of those two broad groups — Midwestern voters on one side, or the younger, more diverse and more educated voter groups on the other. But this is mostly a false choice. Hyping it hurts the Democrats’ cause — and arguably helps Trump.

Politico reports that GOP donors are panicking about Trump’s lack of a reelection strategy. They fear Trump has lost ground in the “blue wall” states he cracked. And they say Trump’s strategists have not absorbed the lessons of the 2018 loss and have no plan to reach beyond his core supporters.

All this is true. Democrats made big 2018 gains in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, which (as GOP donors gripe to Politico) suggests that energizing Midwestern non-college-educated white Trump voters may not be enough in 2020. And there are zero signs Trump acknowledges the scale of the 2018 backlash against him from Dem-leaning voter groups: By declaring a national emergency to build his wall, he’s doubling down on what is deeply alienating them.

Yet now the New York Times reports that Democrats are consumed in a “simmering debate” over whether to “redouble their efforts to win back the industrial heartland” or instead to “turn their attention to more demographically promising Sun Belt states like Georgia or Arizona.”

The Times points to a “growing school of thought” that Democrats should deprioritize outreach to the “heavily white, rural, and blue collar part of the country when their coalition is increasingly made up of racial minorities and suburbanites." Doing this supposedly entails navigating an alleged conflict between “a focus on kitchen-table topics like health care and jobs,” or instead “unapologetically elevating matters of race and identity, such as immigration, to mobilize young people and minorities.”

This is angering some Rust Belt Democrats. Gretchen Whitmer, the new governor of Michigan, laments that “it drives me crazy” that Democrats are responding to their 2016 loss among Rust Belt voters by “trying to write them off.” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers similarly claims Democrats should prioritize the Rust Belt as the fastest way to regain the White House.

It’s not clear how deep this debate really runs. Many Democrats I speak to dismiss the idea that this constitutes a serious dilemma. But, however real it is, it’s important to emphasize that this whole framing is exaggerated and Democrats who respond to it this way make things worse.

An exaggerated false choice

Simply as an empirical matter, this framing of the policy choice is overly simplistic and doesn’t adequately reckon with what’s happening in the Democratic Party right now.

Let’s start with the idea that Democrats can choose whether to emphasize race, identity, and immigration — or to deemphasize them — depending on which voters are being targeted. This trivializes the degree to which the party has actually evolved on these matters, in step with its own voters — in a good way.

Grass-roots movements within the party have forced party actors to take racial issues more seriously through organizing and pressure. Trump’s naked demonizing of, and cruel agenda toward, vulnerable minority groups have also propelled these issues to the top of the Democratic agenda.

On immigration, the party for many years embraced the idea that supporting maximal enforcement would lure Republicans into supporting legalizing undocumented immigrants. But GOP intransigence has revealed this as a fantasy. This, plus Trump’s success in getting the GOP to go all in with his virulent nativist nationalism, has pushed Democrats toward a more unabashedly pro-immigrant posture as a matter of basic values, rather than practicality.

Democrats can’t back away from any of this. What’s more, the notion that this new emphasis somehow deprioritizes “kitchen table issues” is confused. Matters of race and identity are in many ways economic issues. There just aren’t really clear and separate lanes here, and the real story is that the leading Democratic candidates have internalized this complicated truth.

Thus, the candidates most often associated with economic populism — Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown — are also talking about how structural racism limits economic opportunity in particularized ways in addition to the structural problems with the economy that have stagnated wages and exacerbated inequality across the board.

The very idea that focusing on race and identity somehow cuts against a “kitchen table” approach itself helps Trump. It falsely implies that policies geared in that direction — many of which are aimed at working-class minorities — of necessity must distract from addressing the needs of working-class whites.

Don’t concede too much to Trump

This is all very confused in another way. One Democrat tells the Times that to win the Rust Belt, Democrats must avoid more robust left-wing economic ideas and be more “practical.” But what about the progressive proposals aimed at reining in corporate power — those from the unabashedly populist Warren and Sanders, for instance? It’s not clear why these would fare less well in precisely the region Trump won by vowing a (fake) populism against an economy “rigged” by elites.

This assumption, too, cedes the debate up front to Trump, who will claim (after selling out on his own populism) that the more progressive candidates are out of touch with Real America’s economic needs. The Warren/Sanders approach is a “kitchen table” agenda and it’s very progressive — it’s geared toward helping working-class whites left behind by the broken economy and at young progressives who believe the broken economy portends a bleak future.

It’s true Democratic voters will to some degree base their choice on regional appeal. Picking Brown or Sen. Amy Klobuchar might partly constitute a bet on the Midwest as the route to victory. But this is only one part of a much bigger and more complex set of considerations. There’s no need to get drawn into a dumbed-down debate that obscures more than it clarifies and helps Trump in the process.

Read more:

Robert J. Samuelson: Is Democrats’ swing left sound policy or an economic pipe dream?

Jennifer Rubin: Democratic voters aren’t where a lot of Democratic candidates are

Ed Rogers: Exactly which Trump policies do Democrats want to undo?

David Ignatius: Trump is teaching Democrats how to win

Megan McArdle: Democrats are learning to copy Trump. Uh-oh.