This is a column about what I don’t know, and what I think I know.
Democrats are divided over a strategic question: Is it better to challenge Trumpism by vocally confronting Trumpists in off-duty settings? Or should we adhere to the principle of “when they go low, we go high”? Many senior Democrats fret that the spectacle of Trump aides being heckled or escorted out of restaurants is off-putting to moderate suburban voters; many activists take this tsk-tsk’ing as a misguided attempt to protect civility at a time when democracy itself is at risk.
Put aside the hypocrisy of this White House complaining about such protests. What about the political question of what strategy is maximally effective? It’s time for both strategists and activists to admit: We just don’t know.
Republicans running against Trump in 2016 approached it all ways. Jeb Bush tried ignoring Trump and got trounced. Marco Rubio got down in the dirt with Trump before losing his home-state primary by 18 percentage points. Ted Cruz tried sucking up to Trump and his supporters, then tried belittling Trump’s wife, then tried threatening Trump when Trump threatened Cruz’s wife , then gave up.
None of it worked.
In Hillary Clinton’s campaign, we mixed a series of hard-hitting ads about Trump’s conduct and statements with a debate strategy that took on Trump’s record and character without name-calling. Though Clinton’s approach was received positively at the time, and experts scored her the debate winner while Trump’s name-calling (“nasty woman,” “Crooked Hillary”) was widely seen as a disaster for him, Clinton herself had after-the-fact doubts about how she dealt with Trump face-to-face, and, of course, she is now a private citizen, not president.
That’s not to say that Trump is a political giant: He’s among the most unpopular presidents ever among members of the opposing party and independent voters, and his approval rating is stunningly low for a president presiding over (relative) peace and (relative) prosperity. He has lost critical off-year elections in Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania. His White House boasts that his approval rating is where Ronald Reagan’s, Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s were at this stage in their presidencies — but these presidents’ parties got shellacked in their first midterms.
The fact is that the answer to the question of how best to confront Trump — what mix of go-high and go-low tactics — remains unknown. The proto 2020 Democratic candidates have already tried a variety of tactics (from threatening to punch him out to more measured critiques), and none of these strategies have truly clicked. As a matter of tactical advantage, we simply don’t know which side of the Democratic debate over “civility” in the face of Trumpism is more effective.
So what should Democrats do? While trying to sort out the confrontation question, I think there are three pathways to triumph in the 2018 midterms:
First, Democrats have to show voters that they are fighting for them, not merely against Trump. Yes, we oppose this president and are trying to check his horrible policies. But if one of our arguments is that Trump is self-obsessed, then we cannot become Ahab-like in our pursuit of him. Voters know whom we are fighting against. We need to talk more about whom we are fighting for: families struggling with higher health-care premiums, households where incomes are squeezed (while corporations roll in tax-cut dough), young people burdened by student debt, seniors with fixed incomes watching prices start to creep up again.
Second, our best argument may not be about the outrageous things Trump has done but, rather, about the things he promised to do that he has not done. He promised to pass the largest infrastructure bill in history — and hasn’t even written it yet. He promised to drain the swamp in Washington — and has instead given us one of the most corrupt and chaotic administrations in history. He promised to pass a big, beautiful health-care plan, and has only made the system worse. He promised to fix the North American Free Trade Agreement, and has only given us a job-destroying trade war. It’s what Trump hasn’t done, even more than what he has, that may be his Achilles’ heel.
Third, we should promise voters a different kind of Congress if we get control: a true “people’s Congress.” Given voters’ understandable cynicism about policy promises (which will depend on Trump action), it won’t be enough to make pledges about what bills we will pass; we also have to offer changes in how we will do it. That means more transparency and openness in how Congress is run, fewer perks for members, and strong action to reduce the influence of special interests. Many 2018 challengers are running on a pledge not to accept donations from corporate political action committees, and it’s time for others to follow their lead.
In the end, I doubt that L’Affair Red Hen will move many voters — or that angry confrontations will change how Trump aides wield their power. Democrats can best stop Trumpism by winning control of Congress, and we can do that by showing voters that we are putting them first, calling out Trump’s failures to act and promising that — if given the chance — we will change the way business is done in Washington.