Few could have predicted that President Donald Trump would be this good at surrendering the political advantage of a strong economy. Not only is he now underwater in the three states that pushed him to victory in 2016—he’s now unexpectedly vulnerable in places such as Texas, Florida, and Ohio as well. His popularity rises to 50 percent or higher in states that total a mere 102 electoral votes. Probably of more concern to his campaign: He’s fallen below 40 percent approval in states encompassing a 201-electoral-vote bloc.
But Democrats haven’t won the 2020 election yet—and we’ve got a long way to go. At this stage in the 1992 election cycle, President George H. W. Bush was riding high, buoyed by America’s success in the Gulf War. Less than two years later, Bill Clinton moved into the White House. Trump might prove incapable of engineering such a dramatic reversal of fortune. But if the economy continues to hum and he racks up a couple of wins on foreign policy, the public’s perception of his presidency could shift. Democrats can’t bank on voters being more dismayed by him than they are enamored of us.
For that reason, Democrats need to take a strategic approach to the next 20 months. In the last election, Democrats were too quick to dismiss the possibility that voters would take Trump “seriously, not literally.” This time, we should not only take him seriously—we should take him literally when he tells us exactly how he’s going to run his reelection campaign.
“Tonight,” the president said in his State of the Union address, “we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” That was a tell. Trump’s going to spend the next two years using the bully pulpit to convince voters that Democrats are big believers in “government coercion, domination, and control.” He’s making a bet that if he labels Democrats “socialists” frequently enough, he’ll be able to drive a wedge that scares swing voters out of the Democratic fold.
If 2016 proved nothing else, it demonstrated that Democrats ignore Trump’s antics at our own peril. In much the same way Democrats shouldn’t paint his supporters with a brush so broad that it alienates convincible voters—anyone else game to banish the word deplorable from the 2020 campaign?—the last thing we should do is serve him slow pitches over the plate that allow him to define us on his terms. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Democrats have been doing since he went before Congress in early February. It’s almost as if we’ve been duped into reading from his ready-made script.
Earth to Democrats: Republicans are telling you something when they gleefully schedule votes on proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and a 70 percent marginal tax rate. When they’re more eager to vote on the Democratic agenda than we are, we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we’re inadvertently letting the political battle play out on their turf rather than our own. If Trump’s only hope for winning a second term turns on his ability to paint us as socialists, we shouldn’t play to type.
That’s not to say Democrats should abandon our priorities. We should work hard to combat climate change. We should fight to expand health-care coverage and reduce costs. We should find ways to make the tax code more progressive. But we shouldn’t fall for Trump’s sucker punch. By a margin of 56 to 33 percent, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer us to nominate “someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues.” In other words, this campaign is going to be less about ideological purity and litmus tests, and more about how voters size up the candidates’ personal qualities.
To borrow Richard Ben Cramer’s famous phrase, Democrats ultimately need to nominate the candidate who best demonstrates that he or she has “what it takes” to win. Bill Clinton might ultimately have won the 1992 election when, during a town-hall debate in Richmond, Virginia, he answered a voter’s question about the economy by describing personally the anguish he’d seen among those who had been left behind. Meanwhile, over Clinton’s shoulder, President Bush was checking his watch. In an unscripted moment, both candidates’ values came through. By walking toward the woman who asked the question, Clinton showed his underlying empathy for the squeezed middle class; by appearing bored, Bush exposed his lack of interest. The rest is history.
Over the course of the next 20 months, we’re going to get a much clearer picture of each candidate’s authenticity, credibility, and viability. First, winning candidates invariably have a message and a story that’s authentic to their character. Like Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama proved they were tough enough to steer the country in a new direction by refusing to fold after absorbing punches on the campaign trail. In 1980, Reagan revealed something of himself when he forcefully took control of an event in New Hampshire by declaring, “I paid for this microphone!” A dozen years later, when Clinton declared himself the “comeback kid” after surviving a deluge of negative press, he showed a side people hadn’t seen. In 2008, Obama’s ability to bounce back from his Granite State defeat answered once and for all the question of whether he was the real deal.
The second issue is credibility. Voters have to be able to imagine and envision the candidate in the Oval Office. As they watch each candidate, they will inevitably ask themselves, Does this person have the gravitas to withstand the pressure that comes with leading the free world? Credibility proved to be something of a liability in 2016, when the electorate’s desire for radical change prompted many voters to embrace Donald Trump’s less traditional appeal. But after the past two years, the country now yearns for a return to normalcy—meaning that voters will likely want their next president to fit the part more credibly.
Which brings us to the third issue: viability. Democratic and independent voters are more desperate to win than ever before. They’ll be willing to support a candidate who doesn’t agree with them on every issue—just so long as that candidate is capable of evicting Trump from the White House. So the ideological debates often shroud what voters really want—a nominee capable of standing steady and strong as Trump tries to bully his way into an Election Night victory.
The president’s low approval ratings suggest that, if he wins a second term, Democrats will have no one to blame but ourselves. We’re blessed to have a slate of primary candidates capable of making Trump the first one-term president in more than a quarter century. But to get there, we’ll need to put some of our internal disagreements on hold. As Democrats, our first, second, and third priorities should be to produce a candidate who will appeal to the widest swath of both moderate and progressive voters. Until January 21, 2021, we need to make sure that everything else is set aside.