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.

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.

What Do Democrats Want in a President? Part I

Democrats have a hoard of hopefuls aiming for their party’s 2020 nomination, so what qualities and characteristics are Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees likely to value?

Electability is certainly a factor, but what makes a potential nominee electable?

I’ll save the all-important ideology question — does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters or move left to energize core constituencies? — until my next column, but there are plenty of other questions that Democratic voters must address over the next 12 to 15 months.

Here are a few:

Can a candidate be ‘new’ more than once?

When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race on April 30, 2015, he wasn’t taken very seriously by political handicappers. He seemed too far left, couldn’t match Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine, wasn’t even a Democrat and appeared too disheveled for this media age.

But Sanders caught on as an “authentic,” quirky, progressive alternative to the “establishment” Clinton. He was passionate and sincere, a fresh voice with principled ideas.

Is Sanders still the candidate of change, new ideas and authenticity, or did his magic potion have a 2016 expiration date?

Can he really compete with other, newer, younger candidates — like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor/former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — who will attempt to carry the mantle of change, energy, progressivism and authenticity?

Count me as skeptical that it’s now possible to be “new” more than once.

Of course, in the past, some unsuccessful presidential hopefuls proved resilient.

Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1956 after losing decisively in 1952. Republican Thomas E. Dewey lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but was nominated again four years later — and lost to Harry Truman. And Richard Nixon lost in 1960 but won the GOP nomination and the presidency eight years later.

But those were different times. Barack Obama never could have been nominated back then. Nor could Donald Trump.

We live in impatient times. Candidates don’t want to wait their turn, and the party establishment has withered.

Fundraising has changed, as has media coverage. That’s made charisma and oratory more important than preparation for office, longevity and maturity.

I expect there will be a new “Bernie Sanders” this cycle, but it’s unlikely to be Bernie Sanders.

I’m even skeptical about Joe Biden’s chances, even though he starts at or near the top in most polls, and even though I believe he would have won the White House had he been the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Selecting Biden as the party’s nominee may seem too much like going backward instead of marching into the future to Democratic voters.

Must the ticket include a woman? An African-American?

The eventual Democratic nominee will need to roll up big margins among women and non-whites, two groups that make up the backbone of the party.

Clinton carried women 54 percent to 41 percent and non-whites 74 percent to 21 percent in 2016, but two years later, Democratic House candidates carried both groups by even wider margins — winning women 59 percent to 40 percent and non-whites 76 percent to 22 percent.

Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successes battling Trump, the victories by female candidates in 2018 and the infusion of energy provided by progressives of late, I simply can’t imagine a Democratic ticket without a non-white or a woman.

Both groups are crucial in offsetting the GOP’s advantage with men and whites.

The more important question is whether the party needs both a person of color and a woman on the ticket. I start off thinking the answer is “probably.”

A party that stands for diversity and inclusiveness must prove its commitment when putting together a national ticket.

This certainly doesn’t mean that a white man can’t be nominated for president or vice president by the Democrats — or win the White House.

Biden, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, O’Rourke and others have obvious assets in a crowded contest. But female and minority voters will have such a large role in selecting a presidential nominee that they may well prefer to nominate someone who looks like them.

And a ticket with a woman and/or an African American could help turnout among those crucial groups. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black, Indian-American and a woman, checks a number of boxes.

Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must also be in the conversation as appealing to women, just as Booker will have appeal to black Democrats.

Is experience an asset or a liability?

Obama jumped into the 2008 presidential contest on Feb. 10, 2007, about two years after he became a senator.

Trump never held elective office (or even a significant appointed post) when he won the White House. He defeated a woman who had been first lady, senator and secretary of State, and who was making her second run for president.

Does experience matter at all to Democratic voters? Or do they care only about speaking ability, charisma, newness and enthusiasm?

Is having served three terms in the House and a few years on the El Paso City Council enough (O’Rourke)? How about serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg)? Is a couple of years in the Senate enough if you were previously attorney general of California (Harris)?

Newer contenders have shorter voting records, or none at all. Some have had little or no connection with Washington or Congress.

Is that what Democrats are looking for, or after Trump do they want someone who knows the ins and outs of legislation and D.C.?

If experience is still an electoral asset, Biden, Brown, former two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and even Sanders have an important credential.

But if it isn’t an asset, other hopefuls may be better positioned.

These three questions are only the tip of the iceberg as we try to answer the question “What matters to Democrats as they put together a national ticket?”

In my next column, I’ll look at some other considerations, including ideological positioning.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2019.

Has the shutdown changed Trump’s political standing?

Even Donald Trump knows he is in a disturbingly deep political hole.

That’s why he went on television Saturday to offer his version of a “compromise” to Democrats. He is trying to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party for the partial government shutdown and to paint them as intransigent and extreme.

But after decades in the public spotlight — and two years in the White House — the president has his own well-earned reputation. Americans either love him or hate him.

His job approval has been poor for months, usually sitting somewhere between the upper 30s and the mid-40s.

Still, has the Trump-Pelosi standoff damaged the president badly? Count me as skeptical, even though polling consistently shows most Americans are not clamoring for a wall and hold the president responsible for the shutdown.

On “Meet the Press” Sunday, moderator Chuck Todd, who is also NBC News’ political director, asserted that the president is suffering politically. “The government shutdown is now in its 30th day. And the spread between Mr. Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings has grown noticeably since the start of this shutdown. He went from 10 points underwater to 15, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s polling average,” Todd said.

In fact, looking at the change in the margin between Trump’s job approval and his disapproval exaggerates any alleged “change” in public opinion.

That 5-point change probably reflects a drop of 2.5 points in Trump’s favorable rating and an increase of 2.5 points in his disapproval.

Given the usual difficulties of polling these days and polls’ statistical margin of error, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s standing has eroded dramatically.

A small dip? Possibly. A significant downturn? Not yet.

As Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup wrote a week ago following a Jan. 2-10 Gallup poll, “Trump’s rating has been little affected by the shutdown.”

Gallup showed Trump’s job approval at 37 percent, down 2 points from his approval before Christmas.

Gallup found what you would expect — virtually no change in Trump’s job ratings among Republicans and Democrats, but a measurable drop among independents.

Traditionally, independents are less engaged in politics, so their opinions tend to move around much more than partisans.

Economist/YouGov polling from late November 2018 to mid-January 2019 also showed little or no movement in the president’s job ratings, ranging from 43-46 percent approval over that period of time.

Of course, this is but a single poll, and other surveys, including for CNN and NPR/PBS/Marist, suggest at least some movement.

So, this is one of those cases where you can find data to support whatever view you hold. But given the country’s polarization, it’s difficult to believe the shutdown is having a substantial impact on the president’s job approval numbers.

The wall and Trump have become one, both for supporters of the president and for opponents.

As Gallup’s Frank Newport wrote recently, “[Trump] is very unlikely to lose support for the wall among his base, regardless of what he does. It also follows that Trump is unlikely to gain support for his wall among those not in his base.”

But while the shutdown has not yet redrawn the political battle lines or remade party coalitions, it is not without risk for Trump.

The standoff could further erode the president’s already poor standing among independents, and while that’s not likely to move the needle much, Trump can’t afford to lose any support given his very narrow victory in 2016 and the disastrous Republican midterm House losses.

The deadlock over the wall and the shutdown also make it impossible for Trump to talk about other issues, like the economy, where he has obvious accomplishments and should have an advantage.

Even more dangerous for Republicans, the standoff could eventually damage the economy.

As the New York Times reported last week, “The revised estimates from the Council of Economic Advisers show that the shutdown, now in its fourth week, is beginning to have real economic consequences. The analysis, and other projections from outside the White House, suggests that the shutdown has already weighed significantly on growth and could ultimately push the United States economy into a contraction.”

Slower growth, whether because of eroding consumer confidence or increased nervousness in the business community, could have a much greater impact on Trump’s ratings than the shutdown.

The same goes for the results of the special counsel investigation of Robert S. Mueller III, of course.

The president’s “base” strategy of whipping up support among his acolytes and relying entirely on the Republican Congress has caused him to paint himself into a corner.

Now, unable to crush Pelosi through sheer force of will, the president may feel he must do something dramatic to reset his presidency. The question is whether that step would stiffen the resolve of opponents, rattle his core supporters or fundamentally improve his positioning.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 22, 2019.

How Can the GOP Turn Out Trump Voters?

In my column last week, I noted that current public opinion data and recent election results point to a likely Democratic takeover of the House in the fall.

Some argue President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is already baked into the election cake, leaving Republicans little room to maneuver. But if you are a GOP strategist or ally of the president, you still need to formulate a plan to improve your party’s prospects and even look toward 2020.

Is there anything Republicans can do to change the trajectory of the election cycle? And if there isn’t, would a disaster for congressional Republicans in November automatically be a political disaster for Trump?

One veteran GOP campaign operative who is sympathetic to the president acknowledged something that should trouble Republicans on Capitol Hill: “Trump just endorsing a nominee is not enough. He can’t bring people out without issues.”

That conclusion seems reasonable given the Democrats’ advantage on enthusiasm and after the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania to rally support for Republican nominee Rick Saccone, but the president couldn’t move the needle enough even in a district he had carried by 20 points in 2016.

He’s not alone. Previous presidents with strong personal followings also found their popularity didn’t transfer to their party when they were not on the ballot.

Firing up the base

Republican strategists across the ideological spectrum agree there isn’t much they can do about the Democrats’ sky-high energy levels. But conservatives who have rallied behind the president are still looking for ways to boost enthusiasm among Trump voters that would minimize the damage in the fall and keep the House in GOP control.

Some Republican strategists argue the GOP’s best chance to improve the landscape this year is to push a legislative agenda that is both generally conservative and broadly popular. They hope a Trump-like agenda will energize those in their party’s base who don’t identify with the GOP in Congress and were drawn to Trump’s message, combativeness and maverick style.

Conservative strategists cite a handful of possible issues: (1) “phase two” of tax reform, (2) workfare for those on public assistance, (3) infrastructure, (4) paid parental leave, (5) health care, and even (6) term limits for Congress.

Workfare/welfare reform and term limits, in particular, have populist appeal for working-class Americans who continue to see Trump as a disruptive force and Washington as a swamp that needs draining. But would Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, really adopt term limits? And would further tax cuts have any chance of being enacted after a massive spending bill?

“I don’t have any expectations that these initiatives would pass this year, but it is important for us to raise the issues and try to force a vote on them,” said one strategist who thinks pushing some of those items can improve the president’s job approval numbers.

Another GOP campaign consultant agreed with the overall approach: “Continue to push policy and legislation, and force Democrats to kill them. We need to run against the Democrats for stopping the Trump agenda.”

These conservatives are pessimistic about the midterms, however, because they complain their party’s congressional leadership isn’t committed to doing much this year. And without a pro-Trump legislative agenda (or a new version of the Contract With America), they argue, Republican turnout will be disappointing.

There is one kicker that might change the trajectory of the election enough to help the GOP — a Supreme Court retirement or vacancy that would need to be filled after the elections. While a confirmation fight would involve only the White House and the Senate, it isn’t difficult to imagine Trump and Republican operatives using the development to crank up the GOP base and Trump enthusiasts everywhere.

Making lemonade

Finally, Republican strategists from both the populist and establishment wings of the party agree that losing the House in November would not necessarily be a terrible thing for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

While control of that chamber would give Democrats a platform from which to investigate the president, his family and the entire administration, it would also give Trump something he desperately needs: a very visible enemy.

Trump supporters see House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as an ideal adversary — a far-left, San Francisco elitist with poll numbers as bad as or worse than the president’s.

“The president would be best off with a Republican House and Senate that would help him get stuff done over the next two years. But if he doesn’t have that, then having an enemy going into 2020 would be good,” a Republican said.

Another summarized it this way: “Lose the House. Get a boogeyman. Run against [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi for two years.”

But things aren’t quite that clear.

Multiple Hill investigations would keep the White House tied in knots, which would likely frustrate Trump and cause him to say even more outrageous things than he has so far. And Pelosi could choose to retire, depriving the president of the adversary he desires. Moreover, nobody knows where the economy will be in 2020, or how the Mueller investigation or the Stormy Daniels case will develop.

Opinion about Trump is so polarized that it is difficult to see how the midterms won’t be about him. Republicans can’t do much about Democratic enthusiasm, but they may be able to have some impact on GOP turnout. If so, they could hold on to a few seats that now appear poised to flip.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 28, 2018.