Republicans Want an Election About Socialism. They Likely Won’t Get One

If there was any doubt congressional Republicans want to make the 2020 election about something other than President Donald Trump, look no further than the House GOP’s campaign chairman.

“Republicans will make 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom, NRCC Chair Emmer says, w starring role for AOC & Squad as ‘Speaker in fact,’ & rest of Democrats as the ‘new Red Army,’” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted last week about National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer.

That’s not a complete surprise, of course, since Republican candidates, officeholders and strategists have appeared intent for months to transform the 2020 elections from a referendum on Trump into a referendum on socialism.

Even before Emmer’s chat with reporters last week at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, in which he said “This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” the Minnesota Republican had signaled his intentions in an op-ed for Roll Call.

“After 100 days of accomplishing nothing but tax increases and bad headlines, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives boldly proclaimed her socialist Democratic caucus have the 2020 elections in the bag. Her faux confidence is misplaced; the past three months for her band of socialists were disastrous,” he wrote on April 15.

But one side doesn’t dictate what an election is going to be about, and you can be pretty certain that most Democratic strategists want the 2020 elections to be a referendum on the president’s character, judgment, integrity and priorities.

And since Trump occupies the highest and most powerful elected office in the land, it’s easier to make next year’s elections about him than about a handful of freshman members of Congress.

Democratic message

If Democrats are going to run on any “ism,” it’s probably going to be the alleged “racism” of the president and his party, a message that should have considerable appeal among minorities, progressives and college-educated swing voters.

Last cycle, Republicans spent time and resources trying to make the 2018 midterms about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They failed — as I suggested they would in a Feb. 21, 2018, column — because the leader of the minority party in the House simply isn’t seen as running the country.

With Trump in the news daily and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans never had a chance to make 2018 “about” Pelosi.

As I wrote last year, Republican campaign operatives didn’t have many options in their effort to hold the House, so I could understand the strategy. But that didn’t mean that it was likely to be successful.

This cycle, Pelosi and the Democrats control the House, so at least the NRCC can plausibly label her responsible for the nation’s ills and Trump’s failures.

Plus, some Democrats on the party’s left have become more vocal about moving their party in a more progressive direction, which plays into GOP hands next year.

But most voters don’t see the speaker of the House — or the Senate majority leader, for that matter — as dictating the direction of the country. They think of the president as in control.

That’s particularly likely to be the case when the incumbent president has a large personality, dominates the news and is inherently controversial, either because of his policies or his character and personality. And that description fits Trump perfectly.

Presidential contests are part referendum on the occupant of the Oval Office and part choice between the two parties’ nominees. But Trump’s personality and profile enhance the chance that 2020 is more about him than about anyone else.

All about the nominee

Of course, Emmer’s (and the White House’s) strategy is more likely to be effective if Democrats nominate someone for the presidency who can more easily be portrayed as a radical, and particularly as a socialist.

The most obvious example is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced the “democratic socialist” label over the years. But even Sanders currently leads Trump in national ballot tests.

But can’t Republicans use the high profiles of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — a.k.a. “the squad” — to define the entire Democratic Party, as well as the party’s national ticket?

Probably not, though it may be worth a shot given the paucity of other options available to GOP strategists.

The small band of controversial, progressive Democratic women might be able to keep themselves in the limelight if they make an effort so do so next year, which would play right into Republican hands.

But they almost certainly are too junior to become the face of their party, even though they receive an inordinate share of national media coverage now.

By next fall, almost all of the media’s attention will be on the presidential contest — and particularly on the two presidential nominees.

That’s why the Democratic presidential nomination is so crucial to Trump and Emmer’s strategy.

Trump will likely continue to use the squad as punching bags if he needs to (and he will), but most voters will see 2020 as a clear choice between him and his Democratic opponent, especially if Democrats nominate someone who wants to occupy the political center during the general election campaign.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 23, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Nancy Pelosi: the Democratic Party’s Undisputed Leader

For most of the last campaign cycle, Republican ad-makers treated then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi like a piñata.

They used her name and image in thousands of GOP television spots around the country, trying to turn the midterm election into a referendum on her liberalism and “San Francisco values.” That effort failed, of course, because midterms are never about the minority party’s congressional leadership, at least not when the president is someone as controversial and polarizing as Donald Trump.

But Pelosi, who turns 79 today, didn’t merely survive the GOP attacks. She has prospered and continues to be the glue that holds the Democratic Party together, proving again and again that those of us who believed last summer that her party would be better off with new leadership were completely wrong.

In fact, Pelosi may be the only individual now able to keep her party together and keep Trump back on his heels. Pelosi — not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nor Sen. Elizabeth Warren nor Rep. Ilhan Omar — remains the leader of the Democratic Party, no matter how often Republicans and their allies try to paint the Democrats as a lunatic band of socialists preparing to ban cows and air travel.

Since last year’s election, Pelosi has shown her gifts as a leader, vote-counter and strategist. She succeeded in winning another term as speaker and, so far, has kept a more fractured party together.

Last August, almost three months before the midterms, The New Republic published a piece titled “The Democrats’ Real Pelosi Problem Is After the Midterms.”

The focus of that piece and others was the substantial number of Democratic House hopefuls who insisted that they could not and would not support Pelosi for speaker.

And yet, she successfully maneuvered through the mini-revolt of newly elected pragmatists from suburban, swing districts and outspoken progressives who wanted fresh leadership and were impatient for change.

Yes, she had to make a handful of deals to keep the speakership, including agreeing to only four more years in the position. But making deals is nothing new for Pelosi.

Only a few weeks later, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave Trump enough rope to allow him to hang himself (politically, that is) when the government shutdown and the president shouldered most of the blame.

Between two wings

How was Pelosi able to survive those very different challenges? One of the congresswoman’s great skills, a former House Democratic staffer told me recently, is that “she is comfortable both with being in the establishment and with challenging the establishment.”

While Pelosi has long political bloodlines and was elected to the Democratic National Committee in her mid-30s, she hasn’t always been the insider she has become.

When she defeated Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in a fall 2001 contest to become the House Democrats’ new whip, The Washington Post observed that while Hoyer “had chaired the Democratic Caucus and served in other leadership posts, Pelosi styled herself as an outsider who would bring a fresh approach to inside-the-Beltway politics.”

Only 13 months after winning the whip job, Pelosi was elected House minority leader by her party. That made her the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate.

She ran, she said back then, “as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment.”

Apparently, Pelosi had no problem morphing from insurgent outsider to experienced legislator in the blink of an eye.

As a woman in an arena dominated by men, Pelosi had to see herself as something of an outsider intent on making history.

That fact may well make it easier for her to understand the ambition and impatience of her younger House colleagues, many of whom are women.

In spite of her liberal bent, Pelosi is smart enough and strategic enough in her thinking to know where her party can and cannot go.

A survivor

Her efforts to short-circuit talk of possible impeachment is just the latest example of her savvy.

Her ideological positioning in the party, her gender and her fundraising IOUs have allowed her to survive when others might have lost control of House Democrats.

Even those new House members who would like the party to change more are quick to respect Pelosi.

They understand that she rose up through leadership starting at a time when junior members were expected to be “seen but not heard.”

Of course, Pelosi’s role as party leader will end about a year from now, when the Democratic Party has a de facto presidential nominee.

That person will represent the party nationally, though Pelosi, as speaker, will still have a significant voice.

For years, observers of the House have been asking each other when Pelosi will call it quits. Her recapturing of the speakership, combined with her promise not to serve more than two more terms in the House’s top post and her age, suggest that retirement is fast approaching.

That development, whenever it happens, is likely to be a far bigger headache for the Democratic Party than the gentlelady from California has ever been.

Note: This column appeared initially in the March 26, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Democrats try to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Democrats are off to a fast start in their efforts to blow the 2020 presidential election.

Sure, Donald Trump’s job approval ratings from reputable polling firms still sit in the low- to mid-40s, and congressional investigations are likely to keep the president, his family and his administration on the defensive.

And yes, the 2018 midterms showed what a united Democratic Party looks like and that college-educated whites are swinging to the Democrats in reaction to Trump.

And of course, Trump trails a generic Democrat in early polling, confirming the view that a clear majority of American voters want change in 2020.

But even with all that, the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Democratic Party has already succeeded in taking the heat off Trump and making the party appear so far left that moderates may not be able to support its nominee for president.

If they continue their early successes, this band of ideological purists may “save” their party from a pragmatic progressive who could actually win the White House, thereby handing Trump a second term.

The recipe for victory

The Democrats’ winning strategy for 2020 ought to include three straightforward steps:

  1. Make the 2020 presidential election about Donald Trump — about his tweeting, his language, his flagrant untruths, his lack of empathy, his efforts to belittle his adversaries, and his affection for authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and Kim Jong Un.  As much as possible, make the contest a referendum on his performance, agenda, character and style.
  2. Select a presidential nominee who can energize the Democratic base, including progressives, younger voters and non-whites.
  3. Select a presidential nominee who can attract the votes of swing voters, including those suburban women who helped create the Democratic House wave last year.

This recipe for victory doesn’t require a nominee with a particular ideology or agenda.

A progressive/liberal or a moderate/pragmatist could be elected, as long as he or she completes each of the three steps.

But it’s clear the more extreme the nominee ideologically, the harder it is for the party to appeal to swing voters, including college-educated whites.

The most progressive elements of the Democratic Party will pooh-pooh the notion that an uber-progressive nominee can’t win.

They’ll cite Hillary Clinton’s defeat and insist that Bernie Sanders would have won in 2016. And they’ll argue that getting the party’s base out is crucial to victory, and only hopefuls like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren can do that.

But while an appealing uber-progressive might be able to win under the right circumstances, the chances shrink as the nominee moves further left.

The road to victory still usually depends on winning less ideological voters.

The present reality

So how have the Democrats done in positioning the party for next year’s election? Since the midterms, the party has done an abysmal job of making the 2020 contest about Trump.

The leaders of the Corbyn wing of the party — including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have sought to make everything about themselves and their agenda.

While it’s true that the old quip “Freshmen in Congress should be seen but not heard” is no longer relevant, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib have been unusually vocal and controversial.

Whether it is a proposed “Green New Deal,” criticizing Israel and raising questions about the allegiance of American Jews, or announcing an intention to file an impeachment resolution, the freshman trio have done things to draw attention to themselves and their personal agendas.

The national media, of course, has amplified their statements and agenda, which has taken attention away from Trump.

In baseball terms, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey) is a hanging curveball for the GOP to mash over the fence.

Progressives haven’t worked out the details or the cost of specific steps, allowing Republicans to attack it as a radical, exorbitantly expensive, unrealistic agenda.

Similarly, Omar’s comments about Jews and Israel made her look anti-Semitic, intolerant and radical, undercutting the Democratic argument about Trump’s intolerance and meanness.

Tlaib’s initial steps toward impeachment do what party leaders have been trying to avoid for months — they make the Democrats appear partisan and petty, more interested in destroying Trump than in pursuing policies that are good for the American people.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer try to define the Democratic Party in broadly appealing terms, thereby keeping the nation’s focus on Trump, the Corbyn wing is more interested in pushing its agenda, which makes it easier for the GOP to turn the 2020 election into a choice, not a referendum.

Hidden danger

Right now, core Democratic groups appear energized, primarily because they find Trump’s agenda and behavior offensive.

They turned out in the midterms, and polling suggests they remain angry and energized.

The danger here is that if the Corbyn wing pushes impeachment, it puts congressional leaders in a difficult position and risks splitting the party.

If leadership appears to be blocking the Sanders/Warren/Ocasio-Cortez agenda, and the party nominates someone not sufficiently to the left, some progressives could become estranged, sitting out the 2020 election.

For now, Trump’s behavior and the Democrats’ agenda on health care, guns, immigration, climate change and economic inequality is keeping liberals and progressives energized.

But the party’s standing among swing voters is currently fragile. It’s not clear whether Democrats will nominate a ticket that appeals to them, but the more the party is defined by Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez et al, the more it risks pushing swing voters and moderates into Trump’s camp.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Sanders, Warren and others seeking the presidential nomination are likely to continue stirring the pot on issues now that they are in campaign mode.

And Ocasio-Cortez and her friends on the Democratic Party’s left flank are unlikely to grow quiet over the upcoming months. Indeed, they may grow increasingly bold in their willingness to challenge the party’s leadership.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2019.