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.

When Trump Attacks, the Base Turns Out — For Both Parties

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the four Democratic congresswomen, known collectively as “the squad,” appear to be a strange way to try to win reelection.

There is no doubt that Trump needs to motivate his base to win a second term, and his tweets and comments about immigrants and “socialism” are, at least in part, intended to energize his loyal supporters and demonize the entire Democratic Party. On one level, that certainly makes sense.

A less appealing opposition party is likely to attract fewer swing voters and have problems turning out its own weak partisans.

Since the president has not broadened his appeal and attracted new voters, he will in all likelihood need to rely next year on the same narrow Electoral College strategy that sent him to the White House in 2016.

That would entail losing the popular vote again but winning enough white voters without a college degree in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to squeeze out another Electoral College victory.

Many of Trump’s core supporters undoubtedly agree with his characterization of “the squad” of four progressive freshmen, and making them the face of the Democratic Party has potential benefits for the president and Republicans.

But too much of Trump’s rhetoric does something else that actually undermines his prospects — it inflames Democrats of all stripes, reminding them why they feel they must defeat the president next year.

In other words, Trump is a turnout machine for the Democrats, as well.

The timing of Trump’s attacks on New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her compatriots is more than a little odd.

The president once again injected himself into a hot-button debate about tolerance, diversity, race and exactly who or what is an American just as the Democratic divide during the presidential nominating process was starting to raise questions about whether party progressives and pragmatists would both support the eventual nominee.

Instead of withdrawing from the limelight so that former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris could fight it out over “Medicare for All,” decriminalizing illegal immigration, free college, reparations and the Green New Deal, the president put himself in the middle of everything, essentially changing the subject in a way that benefits Democrats.

Obviously, Trump craves the limelight and the attention, and he believes he must continue to feed red meat to his supporters. But doing so inevitably angers, energizes and mobilizes those voters who find him offensive, or worse.

As we saw during the 2018 midterms, Trump is in serious trouble when Democratic turnout among key constituencies — people of color, younger voters and progressives — is strong, and when swing voters — suburbanites and whites with a college degree — slide away from the GOP and to the Democrats.

So, Trump faces a conundrum.

The more he interjects himself into controversial topics, the more cheers he hears from his base. He feeds on that enthusiasm, believing that his reelection prospects are enhanced when he takes on “the squad,” the national media, Hillary Clinton and socialism.

But Trump’s attacks invariably are sloppy. The more he ventures into hot-button topics, the more likely he is to offend voters, energizing core Democratic constituencies and alienating swing voters who sent him a message of disapproval in last year’s midterms.

Trump knows how to turn out his voters. Unfortunately for him, he invariably ends up turning out anti-Trump voters as well.

Given his low approval ratings, his showing in 2016 and the 2018 midterm results, that’s not a recipe for a Trump reelection in 2020.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 17, 2019 issue of Roll Call.