The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Must Democrats make it easy for Trump?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Capitol in December 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters) (Aaron Bernstein/Reuters)

Just because President Trump has been credibly accused of a widespread pattern of obstruction, lying and financial crimes, and because many of his policies are hugely unpopular, it doesn’t mean Democrats have the 2020 election locked up. Seriously.

For one thing, Republicans could have a revelation that they would be better off without Trump. If they make the election purely about Trump, they’ll be stuck if someone else were to wind up with the nomination.

Moreover, even Trump can win if he is able to destroy his Democratic opponent — just as he was able to do to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats have to decide whether to make it more difficult for him (or another nominee) to demonize them, or easier.

One way that Democrats could hinder their cause would be to run someone who is ethically-suspect or non-transparent. Failure to release tax returns — something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hasn’t found his way to doing (he promises he will release them “soon”!) — would be a huge gift to Trump. Likewise, misrepresentations on government documents or about one’s own career would put points on the board for Trump. If you’ve screwed up, as former representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) admitted to regarding a past DUI, it’s better to confess now. Completely.

Democrats also give Trump the upper hand when they are willing accept the role he’s designated for them: Socialists. We’ve already heard his Green New Deal attack. Socialists want to take away your car and outlaw cows (or the reverse)!

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Likewise, if you promise to take away private health insurance, Trump would be delighted to run on “Democrats say you can’t keep your doctor.”

It would be a particularly egregious error for Democrats to identify with proposals that are non-starters (Abolish ICE! Reparations!). It’s an unforced error with no upside. If you have to go so far out on the left-wing to attract support, chances are you’re not making the case effectively to an electoral majority.

On foreign policy, soft-pedaling criticism of the one dictator Trump has decided to confront, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, on the grounds that he is a socialist is particularly daft. It’s two unforced errors, really — identifying as socialists and identifying socialism with a brutal, failed regime (rather than, say, Denmark). It would be like cheering Trump for giving away the store and buttering up Kim Jong Un, a brutal dictator trying to keep his nuclear weapons. Any Democrat worth his salt should be able to sound tougher on foreign policy than someone who is an appeaser of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as an apologist for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is in doubt only for Trump and relatives with financial interests in the Middle East.

Yes, Sanders is guilty of doing much of this, which explains Trump’s enthusiasm for elevating the profile of “Crazy Bernie.” However, other candidates are not immune to the temptation of falling into the “socialist” trap.

This does not mean, as Sanders’s apologists would have you believe, that the alternative for Democrats is a socialist or Republican-lite candidate.

Democrats can surely run as progressives — ready to undo tax cuts for the rich, to re-enter the Paris climate agreement, to shore up and expand Obamacare, to legalize “dreamers” (while supporting sane and effective border security), to encourage work by subsidizing the working poor (including childcare), and to expand on criminal-justice reform (legalizing marijuana). These are all actually popular measures, both within the Democratic Party and with independents. That’s not “Republican-lite”; it’s an agenda for beating Republicans.

Having fled the GOP, I cannot for the life of me understand why Democrats would risk rescuing Republicans from themselves and giving them an easy target to distract voters from their own extreme positions (e.g., more tax cuts for the rich, a wall from sea to shining sea, climate change denial, repealing Obamacare).

Democrats, you can be ideologically pristine or you can beat Trump (or his seat filler if he’s chased out); you cannot do both. And as we saw from Wednesday’s magnificent hearing — possible only by a House majority achieved by running moderate candidates — you cannot govern if you do not win.

Read more:

Paul Heintz: I’ve reported on Bernie Sanders for years. A free press won’t give him what he wants.

Greg Sargent: As fresh signs of Trump’s weakness emerge, some Democrats are already screwing up

Ronald A. Klain: Time for Democrats to stare down Trump’s red scare

Jennifer Rubin: Bernie Sanders is no big deal the second time around