intelligencer chats

Are Democrats Blowing Their 2020 Message?

Not all of their ideas are popular. Photo: Paras Griffin/WireImage

Ben: In a column today, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt writes that Democrats “should be casting Trump as a plutocrat in populist’s clothes, who has used the presidency to enrich himself and other wealthy insiders at the expense of hard-working middle-class families. It’s a caricature that has the benefit of truth.” We used to hear a lot about how Democrats’ central message — or at least one of them — should be Trump corruption. But it seems like that’s been superseded by health care and other matters, even as the president’s amorality and lack of ethics spread throughout government. Are Democrats doing enough on this score, or is Trump already enough of a villain that it doesn’t really matter?

Ed: Well, this is the primary season, not the general election. I think a Democratic audience might find it a bit tedious if all their candidates refused to talk about their own policies and just ranted about Trump. I mean, even Democrats deserve a bit of attention, right?

Jon: No, I think Democrats are focusing way too much on other stuff, including ideas of their own that (as Leonhardt points out) are often unpopular.

Ed: The lack of popularity of some of their ideas is actually a separate point. One you have made much earlier, and better, Jon, with all due respect to Leonhardt.

Jon: The out-party’s primary contest is often a chance to attract media attention to messages, and a lot of the attention is going to questions like “Should we ban private insurance?” rather than “What kind of scumbag is Donald Trump?”

Ed: So how do you respond to those who believe HRC fatally erred in 2016 by talking too much about Trump’s character, as opposed to explaining what she’d do as president?

Jon: In previous years, presidents have even expressed concern that the opposing party primary is giving a megaphone to lots of hostile messaging about the incumbent — I remember both Obama 2012 and Bush 2004 having this concern. Trump has no such fear.

I don’t think character is the vulnerability as much as policy and what that says about his character. “Corruption” is a frame that blends both: He’s out to get himself rich, not help you

Ed: I’d say the response of about 80 percent of 2016 Trump voters to that argument would be “they’re all crooks,” rather than “we thought he’d be different.” True, the other 20 percent are a pretty ripe target.

Jon: Yes! even Hoover kept 80 percent of his supporters in 1932. You don’t even need to get 20 percent of Trump’s supporters. Like, 1 or 2 percent might be enough.

Ed: There are plenty of ways to skin that cat, which don’t require settling on a monomaniacal Democratic message this far out .Before everyone begins grinding out “Corrupt! Corrupt!” like cicadas, there are a few things I’d personally like to know about what the Democratic candidates actually propose to do if they win. You know, like how they intend to get anything done if they win. So far, I’ve only heard two candidates — Warren and Klobuchar — give a credible answer to that question.

Ed: I think the argument Leonhardt is making is that the entire Democratic field needs to be focused on general election messaging right now, perhaps exclusively. I don’t buy that.

Jon: I don’t think exclusively — he’s saying their race to differentiate each other has driven them to embrace some unpopular positions.

Ed: He — and you — are right about that. But he’s also arguing that they need to stop talking so much about themselves, and I think that’s a disservice to those Democrats who don’t just want to take polls every ten minutes and choose a nominee based on perceived electability. Besides, it’s not like Trump hasn’t embraced some equally unpopular policies … a lot of them.

Jon: He certainly has! But Democrats should keep that advantage, not give it right back.

Ed: Agreed.

Ben: There’s also a difference between suddenly going all in on Medicare for All, like some candidates, and having it be a core part of your identity, like Bernie Sanders. Even if the policy isn’t that popular, people (at least sometimes) respect consistency and authentic passion for an issue.

Ed: Well, I guess we should also entertain the possibility that, say, Joe Biden (just to pull a random name out of the hat) might win the nomination, and make it a badge of honor that he rejected all of that crazy lefty stuff Leonhardt is worried about. I seem to remember a term for that … triangulation!

Jon: Ben, you might argue that a candidate seen as half-hearted can more easily walk away from an unpopular stance. That’s how Romney Etch-a-Sketched his way out of some of his unpopular positions from the 2012 primary. I’m not sure coming across as a true believer in an idea most people don’t want to happen is an asset

Ed: Particularly if you claim it will magically be enacted via a “political revolution,” whatever that means.

Ben: I’m just saying it may be preferable to CONVERTING to an idea most people don’t want. And, as Ed said, Trump campaigned on many ideas that aren’t popular, but his personal qualities and characteristics outweighed any of that. Simply picking and choosing the most poll-friendly platforms and campaigning on them is not going to get you far if it all seems calculated.

Jon: I disagree. I think he campaigned on popular ideas and was weighed down by his personality: health care for everybody, regulate Wall Street, middle-class tax cuts …

he made a bunch of popular promises and hasn’t fulfilled them. That is the vulnerability. People disliked him, but they also disliked Clinton, so that’s how he won.

Ed: He needs a second term, Jon. The swamp is full of alligators.

Ben: The wall — his central campaign promise — was never popular.

Ed: Seriously, I think (and I would imagine we’d agree on this) there’s no 2020 silver bullet. It’s about the mix of messages, not which message one monomaniacally deploys. The scary kernel of truth in what Jon’s saying is that, to some extent, Americans want to be lied to about what’s possible in politics. Trump has an endless supply of lies.

We can have tax cuts, a big fat safety net, the largest military in the history of humanity, walls, infrastructure, lower health-care premiums and drug prices, you name it!

Maybe the Democratic message for 2020 should be: “How many lies can Americans accept?” But then again, we might not like the answer to that question.

Ben: To go back to a previous point you made: To what extent should the Democratic nominees even be focusing on their general election message right now? A  lot? A little?

Jon: A lot! Voters care about electability.

Ed: There is a POV under which advancing the most progressive policy agenda is about electability. The Sanders camp argues that every other minute. I don’t agree with it, but you can’t really say to Team Bernie: “Hey, what about electability?” A lot of this does become circular. But sure, absolutely, candidates need to try pretty hard not to say things in the nomination contest that will damage them in the general election. Getting agreement on what those damaging things are isn’t easy, though.

Are Democrats Blowing Their 2020 Message?