Read: Trump settles on his reelection message
“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.
Read: Andrew Cuomo’s case for 2020—no, really
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.