Why In the World Would Democrats Refuse to Make Trump a Campaign Issue?

by Neil H. Buchanan

To hear many Republicans and Democrats tell it, the country should stop letting itself be jerked around by the chaos in Donald Trump's White House and instead insist that politicians focus on Real Issues.  In particular, many supposedly savvy political observers on both sides seem to think that the economy is the better issue on which their candidates should focus.  Is this a rare instance in which partisans on both sides are right?

With 20-20 hindsight, of course, one side would certainly conclude that it was wrong.  That is, if both sides emphasized economic issues throughout the mid-term campaigns, the losing side would immediately regret its decision.  Republican or Democrat, each loser would conclude that a different strategy would have worked better, or at least not have been worse, because losing is losing.

But what is interesting, in advance of the elections, is how much confidence there is among political commentators on both sides that their candidates should not become "distracted by the noise."  Prominent voices, liberal and conservative alike, are saying that they will win only by focusing on economic issues.  Even though that cannot possibly right in an ex post sense, what could both sides be seeing that makes them think that their best strategy is to run on economic issues?

There is, of course, rarely consensus among even like-minded commentators, whether or not they are affiliated with a political party.  I do not, therefore, mean to suggest that there is some measurable majority among liberal and conservative pundits who are telling their comrades to campaign only on the economy.  It is notable, however, that more than a few prominent people on both sides are so certain that economic issues to the exclusion of all else are their tickets to political paradise.

To start on the left, consider Lee Drutman, an academic pundit with impeccable liberal credentials, who responded to the Democrats big election victories in Virginia this past November by telling Democrats that their "best bet [for extending the winning streak into 2018] will be to offer a sharper economic message."  Drutman is more than a bit vague about what his preferred "stronger progressive economic message" might include, but we can leave that aside here, because his main argument is that running on economic issues is better than running on anything else.

Drutman, however, frames the strategic decision as a choice between economic issues and cultural issues (presumably referring to issues like immigration and women's rights, although he again is not clear about this).  Notably, he is not saying anything either way about whether Democrats can win by focusing on Donald Trump's never-ending circus of mendacity and incompetence.  He seems to be saying only that Democrats should talk about the minimum wage rather than abortion rights.  (I am not willing to concede that he is right even about that, but again, that is a separate argument.)

But that third choice -- running hard against Trump and everything that he has handed Democrats as potential campaign issues -- would seem to be one of the most obviously promising strategies in the history of politics.  With Trump's collection of outrages piling up every day, most recently his reflexive defense of a man on his senior staff who is credibly accused of physically attacking and otherwise abusing his two ex-wives, what Democrat would not want to make Trump the center of the story every day between now and November 6?

Certainly, the Republicans are freaking out about Trump's insistence on giving aid and comfort to their enemies.  Just last week, The New York Times reported that Trump's "seeming indifference to claims of abuse infuriated Republicans, who were already confronting a surge of activism from Democratic women driven to protest, raise money and run for office because of their fervent opposition to Mr. Trump."

What do Republicans want?  The head of the most important House Republican super-PAC reportedly "fumed" that "[f]or members or anybody else who cares about keeping control of Congress, if you find yourself talking about anything but the middle-class tax cut, shut up and stop talking.  Any time spent on TV talking about anything but how we’re helping the middle class is a waste of time and does nothing to help us win in 2018."

It is worth stopping for a moment here to note how shamelessly Republicans are being told to lie about their economic message.  Having just passed an unpopular, hugely regressive tax cut that they pushed through in substantial part because they were afraid of alienating their wealthy donors, Republicans are now all on message as saying that it was really a "middle-class tax cut."  Even after seeing this kind of dishonesty again and again, it can still take one's breath away to see it in such pure form.

That aside, however, it is easy to see why Republican strategists would be trying to emphasize economic issues.  If they can get voters to think about the small part of the tax bill that went to middle-class people -- temporary though it is, and even though it will quickly be used by Republicans as an excuse to destroy middle-class retirement security -- they can then point to overall positive economic trends (and ignore that those trends began under Obama and have become less favorable under Trump) and say, "Ignore the bigoted buffoon that our politicians refuse to rein in.  We gave you a few more dollars in take-home pay!"

It is possible, I suppose, that Republicans are engaged in a classic Brer Rabbit moment, baiting Democrats into making a mistake by saying, "Please don't run against Trump!  Anything would be better than if you guys made Trump the focus in voters' minds."  Perhaps Democrats are being set up for a fall, but that seems unlikely in the extreme.

Even so, there are certainly people on the left who are convinced that Democrats should not take the bait of running against Trump in 2018.  On his best days, Times columnist David Leonhardt is an insightful analyst.  On other days, however, he is unfortunately the embodiment of well-meaning liberal skittishness.  In the latter category, Leonhardt recently issued "A Warning for Democrats," arguing that Democrats should be emphasizing economics and ignoring Trump's provocations.

What could possibly justify that approach?  The argument is not as crazy as it sounds, although it ultimately does not add up.  Leonhardt essentially says that Democrats play into Trump's strength when they allow him to be the center of attention, even for bad reasons: "By now, the pattern should be familiar: When Trump’s personal behavior is getting attention, even when it’s odious, he often benefits."

This supposedly explains why there has been a slight uptick in the polls for Trump and the Republicans over recent weeks: Democrats are being suckered into arguing about Trump.  If that is not a case of correlation not equaling causation, however, it is hard to know what would be.  "Trump was being outrageous, and some polls ticked up."  And that is supposed to convince us that Trump benefits from being outrageous?

This is similar to the argument that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because she emphasized so-called identity issues, even though more people voted for Clinton than Trump and even though she lost the key Midwestern states that gave Trump his narrow electoral victory due to low turnout among minority and younger voters.  If anything, Leonhardt's argument is even weaker, because it is based on one statistical observation rather than an actual election.

Leonardt approvingly quotes Matthew Yglesias, who argues that "[t]he question isn’t whether Trump is racist (he is), it’s whether harping on that is a good way to defeat racism."  Tautologically, Yglesias then offered this unhelpful nugget: "If you want to help the people most severely victimized by Trumpism, you need to beat Trumpism at the polls."  I evidently lack the inner strength to suppress the urge to type these words: "Well, duh."

I generally find myself strongly agreeing with Leonardt and especially Yglesias, but I honestly think that they are wrong here.  Back in November, The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin made the point well, arguing that Trump's voters "can see for themselves that things are, to put it mildly, not on a sane, positive track" and that "[c]ritics of Trump should be patient and persistent in exposing the president’s debacles; voters really are listening and watching."

I would hope that it is obvious that I am most emphatically not saying that Democrats should refuse to talk about economic issues.  Indeed, it probably is a good idea to make economics a big part -- perhaps even the centerpiece -- of Democrats' campaign strategies.  Drutman's analysis shows that Democrats can win on economic issues, and it is easy to imagine how the remaining persuadable Trump voters might be moved by populist economic policy proposals.

My point is simply that there is no good case that has yet been made that highlighting Trump's many flaws is somehow a trap for Democrats.  I will go so far as to say that no such case can be made.  The evidence shows that Trump is a political gift to the Democrats of the highest order.  Refusing to open that gift, and instead running a standard campaign as if we were living in normal times, would be political malpractice.