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Should the Democrats Use Trump as a Wedge or a Millstone Against the Republicans?

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For a year, over the course of at least a dozen articles, I’ve been arguing that Donald Trump has provided Democrats – and indeed the nation — the opportunity to bring down the whole Republican Party– a party that has become in our times an almost wholly destructive force in American politics.

Trump, I’ve argued, is expressing but a more blatant form of what the GOP has been injecting into the body politic for a generation. The main reason the GOP establishment objects to him, I’ve said, is not that Trump is a wolf, but that he exposes the whole party by not bothering to wear the Republicans’ usual sheep’s clothing. Moreover, the fact that Trump was able to ride his ugly and dishonest act to the Republican nomination reveals the toxicity that the Republican Party and the right-wing media have cultivated in the minds of a significant part of the Republican base.

This dense network of interconnections, I’ve suggested, provides a potential means of tying Trump like a millstone to the GOP and sending the whole edifice down to the bottom of the political sea.

All of that I continue to believe.

And yet: I also approve — at least tentatively — of the entirely different approach that Hillary Clinton is taking. Most recently and powerfully, in her “alt-right” speech in Nevada on Thursday, Hillary used Trump as a wedge, condemning Trump while differentiating him from “normal” Republicanism.

Trump as millstone or Trump as wedge?

I believe there’s room for both.

The politics of how to deal with Trump and the Republican Party are rather complicated, in part because there are so many goals that should be pursued simultaneously:

• The goal of Hillary Clinton defeating Donald Trump in the election in November.
• The goal of the Democrats taking back control of the Congress.
• The goal of President Hillary Clinton being able to get things accomplished even if the Republicans do manage to maintain control of one or both houses in Congress.

And a strategy for success in the elections also rests on a variety of variables:

• How well the Democrats are able to persuade Republicans to vote Democratic.
• How well the Democratic strategy leads Republicans to stay home and not vote at all.
• How well the Democratic strategy moves Independents to reject both the Republican nominee and the Party as a whole.
• How well the Democratic strategy activates its own base to work for victory and to vote.

I’m inclined to believe that it would be wise to focus attention on the middle two variables because:

• It seems doubtful that many rank-and-file Republicans – after a generation of right-wing demonization of “librels” – will pull the lever for Democrats.
• The rise of Trump, I expect, has already got the Democratic base plenty activated.

With all that in mind, the question then is (in the words of Matthew Yglesias writing on Vox.com): “Is it better to make the case against Trump or to attack the party that produced him?”

Yglesias highlights a difference between the desire of many liberals for the latter approach, while “Clinton’s presidential campaign, of course, is trying to lean much more on the former.” What liberals fear, he says, is “that Clinton’s effort to underscore how weird Trump is undermines the party down ballot. Shouldn’t she be arguing that they’re all as bad as Trump?”

The situation is complicated not only because of all the variables, which by themselves would make for a highly complex set of algebraic equations. But also there are so many uncertainties that it is difficult to know even which goals the Democratic strategy should focus on. For example, how realistic is the goal of having a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress?

With Hillary’s victory already judged very highly probable by FiveThirtyEight (82.7%) and by the New York Times (90%), the question for the elections has begun to rest most heavily on the down-ballot results. A Democratic takeover of the Senate now looks probable (60% chance according to the New York Times, a 71% chance according to the future’s markets.

As for the House, whose control by the Republicans threatens to perpetuate the GOP pattern of unprincipled obstructionism, the question arises: in composing their election strategy, how much weight should the Democrats give the goal of taking over the House given the probability of success (17% according to the futures markets)?

William Saletan seems to assume that Republican power will still confront President Hillary. Saletan, in an article titled “Hillary’s Lifeboat to the GOP” appearing on Slate.com, describes Hillary’s excellent “Alt-right” speech as “the first gesture of her presidency.” He writes:

She’s not using Trump to try to take down the whole Republican Party. She’s not going to tie him around the necks of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the congressional GOP. She plans to work with these men. (Emphasis added.)

Which sounds like saying that Hillary expects the Republicans to maintain control over at least part of Congress, and is trying to lay the foundation for bipartisan cooperation. Saletan approves.

I’ve long had the highest respect for Saletan, but I really hope he is mistaken in his suggestion that this is what Hillary Clinton is thinking. Is there any reason at all – in view of how the Republicans have dealt with President Obama for the past seven years –to believe that Hillary’s generous gift of this “lifeboat” will move the likes of Ryan and McConnell to work with her rather than obstruct her?

It would be far wiser strategy, I would say, to work hard to deprive these men of their majorities, thus making them (more or less) irrelevant, rather than to plan on working with them.

Yglesias proposes a much better rationale for Clinton’s going after Trump in a way that takes the GOP off the hook. The best strategy for Democratic success in the down-ballot elections, Yglesias says, is “demoralization” of the Republican electorate. His idea is that the more disgusted that Republican voters are with their presidential nominee, the more the Republican turnout this November will resemble the much lower rate of voting seen in off-year elections.

Convincing longtime Republicans that they don’t like Trump by emphasizing his oddball personality and handful of idiosyncratic policy stances seems a lot easier than convincing longtime Republicans to abandon the faith entirely. And widespread demoralization of base GOP voters could make dozens of currently unwinnable House seats competitive while guaranteeing Democrats a Senate win.

If this demoralization strategy would indeed significantly dampen Republican turn-out, then Hillary’s use of Trump as a wedge could be a winning strategy for taking back the Congress. But that’s a big “If.”

If messages like Hillary’s alt-right speech will have that effect, well and good: as a way of helping the down-ballot Democratic candidates, it is friendly-looking pitch to the Republican voters. But if it just lets the GOP off the hook, it could well squander the opportunity to drain this truly rogue political party of its power.

So that’s another one of the uncertainties.

Regardless of the effectiveness of this “demoralization” strategy, I believe it is possible the answer to the overall question here – whether to use Trump as a wedge or as a millstone –might be “Both.”

It could well make good sense for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine to present average Republican voters the friendly face of the Democratic Party– friendly in telling the Republican electorate, “The problem isn’t you or your party, it is this terrible candidate who somehow ended up being your nominee.”

Come January, Clinton and Kaine will likely be the president and vice president of all Americans. The more positively the Republican electorate views the new Democratic administration, the better.

If President Hillary plays her cards right – in ways that President Obama failed to do when he came into office with higher approval ratings than the long-demonized Hillary is likely to manage — she might be able ultimately to drive a wedge between those voters and the Republicans in Congress persisting in paralyzing the government. In that way, she might gain the leverage to move the GOP away from its destructive obstructionist path.

But the Democratic ticket is not the entire voice of the Democratic Party. Other voices among the Democrats – like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – can be making the more aggressive case. They can not only castigate Republicans – like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell – for their still-unrepudiated endorsement of Trump, but they can also be exposing how the Republicans’ across-the-board obstructionism has been damaging the nation.

While this case may not move Republican voters – with their culture of blind loyalty – to switch sides, it may help to move those Americans without any set party affiliation to repudiate the Republican Party, and to swing the down-ballot elections toward the Democrats.

So perhaps the best strategy would be this: Let the Democratic candidates for President and Vice-President use Trump as a wedge, differentiating Trump from the Republican Party whose face he’s become. And let other Democrats use him as a millstone, to sink the Republican Party in its current form.

And perhaps together, these two approaches can loosen the stranglehold that today’s Republican Party has had over America’s ability to make progress as a nation.

  • Michael Beer

    This is a splendid article that needs to be seen widely. Another option is for Hillary to go wedge and Kaine to go Millstone. A related issue is how much Hillary will horde funds for her presidential campaign…and how much she is willing to push funds down the ballot.

  • Elaine Owens

    I believe Clinton is trying to deal with the reality she will have as president. While the Democrats have a better than even chance of winning the Senate, the House of Representatives is quite likely to stay in Republican hands, probably until after the 2020 redistricting takes place. In 2010, as usually happens, Democratic voters did not turn out for off-year elections the way Republicans did. Part of the reason for that is the GOP voters, who are majority white and older, vote in every election more often than Democratic voters. The GOP gained control of a majority of state houses and governors, thus controlling the redistricting process. The result? While Democrats nationally got a million more votes for Congress in 2012 than Republicans, they only got 46% of the House seats.

    Democrats must face two realities: 1. The turnout operation for off-years elections must become more important to state parties and local committees. We shouldn’t just have the better ground game in state-wide or national elections. 2. Democrats either have to achieve parity with the GOP in state legislatures and governorships by 2020, or they have to make nonpartisan redistricting a major part of their platform, preferably do both.

    Your analysis is spot-on, in my opinion. Clinton and Kaine will have to work with GOP members of Congress and have nothing to gain and much to lose in demonizing them. Down-ballot Democratic candidates need to equate their opponents with Trump early and often. (I’m waiting for the Democratic 6th District candidate to do just that. I’m waiting…..)