Against the Grain

Why Trump’s Behavior Will Define the 2020 Election

Democrats insist that they want to run on pocketbook issues. That’s not how they’ll win back the White House.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
March 26, 2019, 11:05 a.m.

Democrats are now facing the most consequential decision of the Trump era: In a post-Mueller-report world, do they continue to fight Trumpian misconduct through subpoenas, committee hearings, and hard-hitting accusations? Or does House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rein in her aggressive committee chairs and treat him like a traditional Republican president who has simply governed too far to the right?

There’s not an easy answer. Democrats won back the House in the 2018 midterms by recruiting moderate candidates squarely focused on bread-and-butter economic issues. But they also relied on built-in anti-Trump energy, with many voters seething over the president’s chaotic first two years in office and worrying about his abnormal conduct of foreign affairs.

In last year’s congressional elections, Democrats could afford to focus on persuading the moderates because they could rely on white-hot turnout from both the liberal base and other voters who desperately wanted a check on the president’s power.

But a presidential campaign offers a choice between two candidates; it’s not just a referendum of the president’s performance in office. Democrats have controlled the House for only three months, yet during that short time, the party’s leadership has been overshadowed by a cadre of radical voices calling for revolutionary changes in policy. As anti-Trump conservative columnist George Will put it: “An embarrassed nation aches for a president who is one thing: normal. Democrats, however, are looking weirder and weirder while cooking a bouillabaisse of indigestible ingredients.”

There are many savvy Democratic Party leaders calling for a relentless focus on the economy, health care, and the environment. But what happens when the loudest voices in the party are calling for historic tax increases, single-payer health insurance, and a Green New Deal imposing sweeping changes that would rearrange American society? All of a sudden, Trump’s aversion to norms doesn’t look so … abnormal.

Most voters, regardless of their ideology, are incrementalists. Americans are creatures of comfort. They may hold liberal or conservative positions, but ultimately don’t want dramatic changes to their own way of life. Tea-party activists rallied behind cuts to entitlement programs—unless their own Medicare or Social Security was affected. Progressives want to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, but they still rely on gas-guzzling methods of transportation in their own daily lives.

The main reason that the ongoing Mueller investigation had been so damaging to Trump was that it offered the public a general sense of unease, suggesting that the president poses unique dangers to the American republic. Trump’s impulsive tweeting and chaotic style of governance only underscored a sense of skepticism among persuadable voters.

With Mueller exonerating Trump on collusion and passing on an obstruction-of-justice case, that anxiety will dissipate. If Democrats don’t continue making the case against Trump’s abnormal behavior, he would look like any other scandal-plagued politician. There’s real political value for Democrats to continuously remind Americans of the president’s fondness for authoritarian leaders, lackadaisical response to the news of Russian election interference, and the regular denunciations of the media.

In fact, those are the very factors that are consistently plunging his approval ratings underwater even though the country’s economy is booming. Calling the press the “enemy of the people” is hurting his overall popularity, even if many Americans have legitimate issues with bias in news coverage.

The complete Mueller report is likely to feature plenty of unflattering details about the president’s conduct in office and on the campaign trail. There’s plenty of value in pressing the case for its release, and litigating the details during the upcoming presidential campaign. In 2016, Trump’s attacks over Hillary Clinton’s private email server were a textbook example of how continuous unflattering revelations can mortally wound a potent campaign. As the country learned from that episode, behavior doesn’t have to be illegal to be politically damaging.

The Mueller report didn’t find Trump or his family guilty of criminal behavior, but there’s a long public record of personal misconduct and blatant norm-breaking that is politically toxic—assuming Democrats keep litigating the case against the president.

But if they make the 2020 presidential campaign simply about domestic policy, it’s very possible more Americans find the president’s positions more tolerable than the Democrats’ left-wing pandering. There’s good reason why early political models expect Trump to win a second term comfortably. Those predictions are strictly focused on fundamental factors, like the economy, and not on Trump’s erraticism.

There will be much power in a Democratic campaign message that promises a return to normalcy, to borrow a slogan from Warren Harding’s successful 1920 campaign. Voters are less likely to care about issues than about political sobriety. If Democrats now fear a backlash over aggressively investigating the president, they’ll be surrendering their strongest weapon in what promises to be a historically nasty campaign.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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