It’s not too early to detect the outlines of the coming presidential campaign, and there are already disturbing signs for those of us who regard the presidency of Donald Trump as a political grotesquerie in need of correction. We will have waited four years, through the Mueller probe and the cabinet chaos, the foreign policy embarrassments and the tariff blundering, the endless lies and the shameless egotism of this president, and yet at this late date must still ask ourselves whether the Democratic Party could once again pull off the seemingly impossible, and lose to Trump a second time.
To be clear, that’s really the only politically relevant question, because today, and until it happens, defeating Trump in 2020 — not saving the planet from climate change, not transforming capitalism, not further documenting Trump’s manifest corruption, not even assuring health care for all or ameliorating the plight of immigrants — should be the singular goal of the Democratic Party.
All these collateral goals, given understandable impetus by the election of a number of left-leaning Democrats in the mid-term elections, are worthy and urgent, but there will be time enough to address them once Trump is out of office. What there isn’t time for is the sort of smirking self-indulgence and ideological navel-gazing that Democrats are all too prone to indulge in.
One of the most persistent and amusing themes of conservative political punditry is that liberals (as we used to call them) are bent on achieving power, not only to shape society to their elitist notions, but for its own sake. Yet the left in general, and Democrats in particular, today seem woefully deficient in the skills and the discipline needed to achieve real political power in America. They tend to blurt out unpalatable truths, post half-baked manifestos on social media, demand uncomfortably rapid change, and get bogged down in internecine policy tiffs rather than pursue the grubby mechanics of getting elected, which, as any Republican operative can tell you, entails patience, on-message focus, at least the appearance of unity on policy, and an ear for euphemism.
Here then, for those Democrats who seem determined to cause it, is a blueprint for how to re-elect Donald Trump:
Alienate moderates and thoughtful conservatives. Adopt logistically outlandish, politically infeasible programs like the Green New Deal. Abandon all semblance of fiscal sobriety and wear the label “socialist” as a badge of honor, as though it were a synonym for “compassionate.” Wallow in the alphabet soup of identity politics. Declare, as an Ocasio-Cortez functionary recently did, that “every billionaire is a policy mistake.” Go all-in on Medicare for all and free college, to be paid for by higher income taxes and a wealth tax that would prove impossible to enforce. Talk down to Trump’s policy constituency, and smirk knowingly when addressing your own. Keep all this up well into 2020.
Pursue Impeachment. Spend months on self-indulgent political theater investigating Trump’s businesses and adducing evidence of his crimes and misdemeanors even though there is not a chance that he will be impeached by the Republican-controlled Senate. (The senior editor of The Atlantic recently made a strong but ultimately unconvincing argument for what would be a Pyrrhic impeachment process.)
Waste time and resources on unelectable candidates. Award the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with early primary victories, keeping their campaigns going for as long as possible before they inevitably fold, driving ideological stakes in the ground to which factional allegiances will attach and pull the party apart, resulting in write-ins or sit-outs on Election Day. Remain oblivious to the persistent misogyny of the aging American electorate and again nominate a woman for the presidency. Do not under any circumstances nominate Joe Biden, with Sherrod Brown as his running mate.
Concentrate on Trump. Continue to believe that if only his awfulness is adequately described, his supporters will abandon him. Try to match him in stridency and divisiveness. Dream up a new plural noun to collectively insult his followers. Focus on his failures and lies to the exclusion of developing a positive, practical, inspiring, inclusive policy platform.
Assume victory. Remain supremely confident that millennials, minorities and labor will turn out in record numbers and vote Democratic. Ignore the 25% of the electorate that is over 65 years old. Ignore the largely white, largely centrist, formerly Democratic upper Midwest.
By faithfully following this blueprint, Democrats are well on the way to another defeat in 2020, and they need to correct course quickly, for the nation can ill afford another four years of Trump, more of his reactionary Supreme Court appointments, still more hollowing out of the institution of the presidency and the federal apparatus of government.
It’s folly for Democrats to react to the rightward lurch of the Republican Party under Trump with a leftward lurch of their own, abandoning moderates and independents to choose, once again, between what they will inevitably see as two evils. Too many will choose the evil they already know. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren won’t suffer for the self-indulgence of their foredoomed candidacies; we all will.
Identity politics and pie-in-the-sky redistributist aspirations won’t carry the next election. Moderation and grace and discipline, in stark contrast to what Trump will bring to the fight, can. Democrats need to get serious about winning, and that starts with the dull, hard defense of their traditional centrism, and of the almost forgotten virtues of competence and consensus-building.