vision 2020

Maybe Democrats Should Remain on the Defensive in 2020

Does Pete Buttigieg, like John Kerry in 2004, offer a Democratic response to perceived weaknesses rather than a statement of bold, progressive plans? Photo: Erik Lesser/Getty Images/Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Buttigieg Boomlet that some have discerned in the polls and the zeitgeist after the South Bend mayor’s aggressive October 15 debate performance has stimulated a backlash of sorts. Nate Silver doesn’t think the boomlet is real. My colleague Sarah Jones and the New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu have raised concerns about Pete’s corporate associations and (relatively speaking) corporate-friendly policies.

But Nwanevu articulates a different concern about Buttigieg that is bigger than any one candidate and goes to broader questions about Democratic strategy in the Trump era. It is best summed up by the headline the New Republic gave his piece: “Pete Buttigieg Is Still Fighting the Last War.” The idea is that Mayor Pete, despite his youth, is stuck in an old-school defensive crouch that characterized Democrats in the era when George W. Bush and his evil-genius strategist Karl Rove dominated American politics:

[I]t seem[s] as though he’s been engineered as a response to Republican Party of 2004. He offers the kind of rhetoric one imagines the Democratic Party might have leaned into if Obama’s rise had never occurred — less soaring and more concerned with countering Republican suggestions of weakness. This is perhaps what made his early talk about not caring what Republicans say about Democrats so short-lived and personally untenable. Buttigieg has spent much of his life caring very deeply about what Republicans say — so deeply, in fact, that he is still doggedly fighting the rhetorical battles of the Bush presidency, a marooned soldier who hasn’t been told the war is over.

Nwanevu documents why Buttigieg might be mired in the past through an investigation of the candidate’s political musings dating back to college, his focus on political language, and his association with centrist memes like “democratic capitalism” that in his own eyes have a tainted history. He thinks it’s clear that Pete doesn’t get the current challenge for Democrats, although his initial campaign messaging briefly suggested otherwise:

The task ahead of the Democratic Party is not just the redefining of certain political terms and debates but the remaking of our country and economy. The realization of this has finally brought about a Democratic renaissance — but not the one Buttigieg imagined back in college. As such, it is not clear that he understands the grand and terrifying possibilities before us now — whether the existential questions facing this country and planet are truly appreciable to a man convinced the mayorship of South Bend, Indiana, has prepared him for the presidency of the United States. What is certain is that Pete Buttigieg — the millennial candidate, the candidate of generational change — is a man stuck out of time, a Rip Van Winkle who’s somehow managed to keep both his boyish looks and sense of mission.

The implied argument here is that the Bush/Rove political message expired via the economic disaster of 2008 and the total failure of the Iraq War, and Democrats can now safely move onto a positive agenda of rebuilding the economy and U.S. foreign policy along bold progressive lines. The defensive crouch of party centrists, the Democratic Leadership Council (disclaimer: I was DLC policy director for a good while), and presidential nominees like Clinton and John Kerry is unnecessary and reactionary (in both senses of that word); it is getting in the way of what Democrats need to do now, both politically and substantively.

It’s a solid argument made stronger by Nwanevu’s skillful writing, but there’s a problem with it. Buttigieg and Democratic “centrists” aren’t the only people who think Bush-era Republican attacks on the opposition are effective: Trump’s reelection campaign believes it so strongly that it’s betting the farm on ratcheting those attacks up to monstrous levels.

Yes, Trump 2020 is heavily focused on keeping the president’s MAGA base revved up with fuel from his distinctively savage form of racist and nationalist “populism.” And his people hope that objective conditions in the country (i.e., the economy or some alleged “win” in foreign or trade policy) will regain the swing-voter appeal that his repellent personality and conduct have cost him. But his main swing-voter strategy is to label Democrats as socialist, godless traitors in an especially uninhibited replica of the standard conservative attack lines the GOP has been deploying since the days of Ronald Reagan. And he’s doing that because sometimes it has worked. Karl Rove would find himself entirely at home with almost everything Team Trump intends to throw at Democrats in 2020, assuming the famously amoral tactician did not blanch at the sheer chutzpah of it all.

There’s another way in which Trump has already paid tribute to Bush-era politics: his attention in 2016 to dealing with his own party’s traditional weaknesses, as my colleague Jonathan Chait reminded us later:

Donald Trump ran for president as an economic populist. This fact has been largely forgotten, buried by the flurry of bizarre and outrageous actions, and activists on both sides have had little reason to bring it up. Conservatives have pushed the administration to forget its unorthodox gestures and follow Paul Ryan’s lead. Progressives have emphasized the racist and sexist nature of Trump’s appeal. But Trump’s ability to distance himself from his party’s economic brand formed a decisive element of his appeal. Voters actually saw Trump as more moderate than any Republican presidential candidate since 1972.

Trumpism didn’t abolish Bushism or its policies and politics, as we have subsequently learned, any more than the European fascism of the twentieth century entirely abolished the conservative nationalism it coopted and superseded. So Democrats would be wise to come to grips with the old-timey hymns of hate Trump’s reelection campaign is sending their way, even if it seems quaint or irrelevant to the larger tasks at hand.

Sure, you can plausibly argue that the number of swing voters has declined so much that the price Democrats might pay in base-voter enthusiasm for efforts to insulate themselves from old-school attacks on their fidelity to American traditions is too high. It’s also arguably true that defensive-crouch politics tend to lead to defensive-crouch policies if Democrats win, squandering the fruits of victory. And it’s definitely true that nominating a presidential candidate less obviously vulnerable to the impending attacks won’t keep Republicans for launching them anyway: Democrats could nominate Joe Frigging Lieberman and Trump 2020 would call him an America-hating baby-killing immigrant-lover who probably has a red flag in his garage.

But what Democrats should not do is just dismiss as archaic this whole business of addressing ancient negative stereotypes in which Trump and his conservative allies and predecessors have invested hundreds of billions of dollars. Today’s political challenges may feel horrifyingly new during the presidency of Donald J. Trump. But Trump will not hesitate to use every conventional weapon at his disposal.

Maybe Democrats Should Remain on the Defensive in 2020