The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion To beat Trump, Democrats must counter his lies with realistic solutions

President Trump speaks outside the White House in Washington on Dec. 7, 2018.
President Trump speaks outside the White House in Washington on Dec. 7, 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is former governor of Virginia.

As I traveled around the country campaigning for Democrats this past year, one of my takeaways was that there is an overwhelming desire among voters for a return to reality. After two years of President Trump’s grandiose bluster, bluffing and buffoonery, Americans elected candidates who ran as optimistic, progressive problem-solvers focused on results central to families: health care, work, education and taxes. We need to be big, bold and optimistic, but that can’t come at the expense of being honest with the American people.

We are now less than two years away from an election that could restore seriousness to the White House, and the future of the American Dream depends on it. I believe the only way Trump will win reelection is if Democrats give up their credibility as serious and focused on results that impact people’s lives. Ideological populism or relentless negativity is playing on Trump’s turf. The reality-show star will always win that race to the bottom.

The Washington Post Fact Checker and Pollsters teamed up to find out how many Americans believe Trump's frequently used false and misleading claims. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

While then-candidate Trump lied about individual facts throughout the campaign, many voters have come to realize that his 2016 campaign was premised on a larger, fundamental dishonesty. Trump’s populism was built around the idea that you can have everything: lower taxes, protecting entitlement spending, infrastructure investment and a balanced budget; a border wall paid for by Mexico; a quick and easy trade war. That message worked in the primary and general elections because his opponents were not perceived as providing a better vision for improving people’s lives.

But Trump’s eventual downfall — as with most entertainer politicians — is that his fantastical promises of 2016 will not come to pass. We have amassed a massive budget deficit thanks, in large part, to tax cuts for the rich. There is no infrastructure package. Medicare and Social Security are at risk because of reckless Republican budgets. Mexico is never paying for the wall. And Trump’s impulsive trade fights have hurt U.S. farmers and consumers and thrown global financial markets into turmoil.

Voters are now looking for a more realistic alternative. Leading up to 2020, Democrats must maintain our credibility with a pledge of results that are honest and achievable. We can expand the Affordable Care Act and take on pharmaceutical companies’ cartel pricing, pass comprehensive climate change legislation and substantially raise incomes through minimum-wage increases and tax fairness. And that’s just the start.

These changes would be revolutionary for average families. Americans are asking us to focus on improving their lives, not to make unrealistic ideological promises.

For example, some senators have started to discuss a “federal jobs guarantee” — a promise that, in certain formulations, means anyone who wants could have a government job paying $15 an hour with great benefits. Sound too good to be true? It is. Proponents of a jobs guarantee are smart people with good motives, but they surely recognize it is not a realistic policy.

Similarly, a promise of universal free college has an appealing ring, but it’s not a progressive prioritization of the educational needs of struggling families. We need to provide access to higher education, job training and student debt relief to families who need it. Spending limited taxpayer money on a free college education for the children of rich parents badly misses the mark for most families.

When the stakes are another four years of Trump degrading our country, do we really want to use the 2020 campaign as a first-time experiment on idealistic but unrealistic policies?

As we approach 2020, we should look at the candidates who won in swing districts in 2018. They are an energetic, diverse group who ran on realistic goals of lowering the cost of health care, improving education and raising wages. These are credible promises that Democrats have a proven record of addressing. We are the party that created the Affordable Care Act, raised the minimum wage, invested in education and even balanced the budget.

This year, we elected Democratic governors in states that Trump won, such as Wisconsin and Kansas, by campaigning on expanding Medicaid and increasing investment in education. In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won by almost 10 percentage points on a relentlessly pragmatic campaign to “fix the damn roads” and protect the progress made through Medicaid expansion. And improving roads and expanding Medicaid were my blueprint for winning in Virginia during a historically difficult year for Democrats.

This follows the presidential legacies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — leaders who were successful electorally because they focused on concrete, progressive accomplishments to improve average Americans’ lives.

Resisting dishonest populism is not just a policy imperative for serious Democrats but also a political imperative for 2020. Throughout the country, voters just sent a powerful message that they are tired of the broken promises of this administration, especially on health care and taxes.

While I haven’t decided whether to be a candidate myself, I will be closely watching our side and working to ensure that the Democratic message is realistic, optimistic and focused on helping all Americans. The stakes are simply too high for a race to the bottom.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s what Democrats should look for in a 2020 nominee

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump could be the most honest president in modern history

Paul Waldman: Can we stop pretending that Trump is a ‘populist’ now?

Gary Abernathy: Why would we abandon Trump? He’s doing what he said he would do.

Dana Milbank: Trump’s no populist. He’s a swamp monster.

E.J. Dionne Jr: Trump’s populism has nothing to do with helping the people who voted for him