The Political Risks of Loathing Trump

In their days of rage, Democrats may be repeating the mistakes Republicans made after the election of Obama.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 29, 2017, 8 p.m.

Polls show President Trump’s approval numbers languishing around 40 percent, while the anger and intensity of the Democratic base is rising and the Republican base remains pretty complacent, not full of fight as it was during the Obama years. Reflecting those findings, MSNBC is now topping both Fox News and CNN in the key demographic of viewers age 18 to 54, and the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the Republican House, has become even more unpopular than Obamacare.

That’s a lot for Democrats and liberals to be excited about, but both groups would be well advised to consider what happened to the Republican Party and the conservative movement in an analogous time, after President Obama was elected. Tea-party rallies were boisterous and often unruly, town meetings of Democratic lawmakers drew protesters and sometimes turned into shout-fests, and conservative-media ratings soared. Many elements of the Obama agenda became enormously unpopular, and the Republican Party took a sharp turn toward the right and away from established party power centers. Obama effectively radicalized the Republican Party and the conservative movement to the point that the tea party took over both the GOP and right-of-center politics. The potential for the Democratic Party and the Left behaving the same way in the opposite direction is very real.

The metaphor used by President Kennedy in his inaugural address—“Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside”—can be easily applied to the Republican Party’s willingness to be coopted by the tea-party movement in the first few years of the Obama presidency. The tea party pushed policy positions that turned out to be politically unsustainable outside the party base. The GOP establishment became largely emasculated during Obama’s second term, and the 2016 GOP presidential nomination fight came down to a choice between two angry outsiders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. More conventional “establishment” Republican politicians weren’t even competitive.

Senate Republicans are now faced with a political obligation to follow their House GOP colleagues in appeasing the GOP base by repealing and replacing Obamacare, a useful campaign slogan but an immensely difficult undertaking in the practical world of politics. In effect, the Republican base is sending its elected officials on a kamikaze mission. Eight years ago, conservatives and Republicans saw Obama leading Democrats off a cliff by passing Obamacare, and now Republicans are trying to climb up that very same cliff.

Obamacare is clearly flawed and badly needs fixes, but that moderate course of action seems anathema to the GOP base. A party advocating taking health insurance away from 23 million people who would otherwise get it over the next decade is not likely to stay in a majority for very long. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said a few months ago that people might not remember exactly how they got health insurance or who gave it to them, but they would surely remember who took it away from them. That’s why the Republican course is so risky. The GOP has lost its country-club roots and has become a party anchored by downscale whites who didn’t go to college, live in small towns and rural America, and who are older than Democrats and thus have more health issues. So who exactly would “repeal and replace” hurt the most?

When a party becomes consumed with hate and contempt, reason and moderation get thrown out of the window. Knee-jerk behavior replaces careful planning and execution. That’s what happened to Republicans. Are Democrats about to follow suit? At a time when Democrats could project themselves as the adults in the room, the clamor for “resistance” and militant rhetoric is growing louder and louder. There is a pressing need for pragmatic, moderate voices on health care, climate change, and a panoply of other issues, but Democrats seem to be unhinged by their animus toward the leader of the opposition party.

The visceral loathing of both Obama and Hillary Clinton among so many conservatives and Republicans undermined attempts by moderates to be fair-minded, balanced, and measured. Today, the contempt that liberals and Democrats have for Trump has reached a comparable level. When the Democratic National Committee chairman has to be scolded by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for effectively advocating a litmus test for Democratic candidates on abortion, you know that the party is run amok. Judging by news reports, the recent California Democratic state convention appeared to be almost completely out of control, a case of the inmates taking over the asylum.

To capture House and Senate majorities, Democrats will need to win districts and states that Trump carried with room to spare, as well as those that he just barely won or split almost evenly. Rather than pushing the message that the voters in those districts and states were stupid, foolish, or morally deficient, Democrats should be presenting themselves as a better alternative, a party prepared to confront the problems facing the country no matter who is in the White House.

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