The Democrats’ strategy could be summed up in two words: Donald Trump.
He was, they asserted again and again, unacceptable, immoral and corrupt. Every focus group they assembled raised serious questions about his disparagement of various ethic groups, his brutish mannerisms, his business ties to foreign governments, his lack of qualifications. Almost every professional polling firm showed deep and mounting disapproval of his behavior—he was, they calculated, the most unpopular candidate in American history. Many in the Republican establishment criticized or outright denounced him. And yet, defying all the confident predictions right up until election night, Trump managed to eke out a shocking election victory, relying particularly on a surge of “forgotten voters” in the Midwest.
You’d be forgiven, of course, if you thought this was a recap of the 2016 election. Actually, it’s what the same pundits who got 2016 so wrong may very well might be saying again four years from now. Such a mind-blowing, spirit-crushing, defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory redo of the last election should keep smart Democratic operatives up at night. Yet it doesn’t.
Like Inspector Javert or perhaps more appropriately Wile E. Coyote, the Democrats remain fixated on getting their man, Donald Trump, and proving wrong the voters who elected him. At first glance, the daily drip of new and shocking revelations over Russia looks like a mounting shadow over the White House, and it very well may prove to be its undoing. But the instant scandal—it seemed to start the minute Trump was declared president-elect—also threatens to be further decimate the Democratic Party. And Democrats don’t seem to know it.
To those with a bit of distance from cable news—that is, every sane person in America—
Democrats seem to be replaying the exact strategy that lost them the last election. What, pray tell, is the Democratic Party’s message otherwise? That they don’t like Russia, except when they did? That they believe Russia is the biggest national security threat to America, except when it wasn’t? Democrats appear to have spent about two minutes trying to figure out why the voters of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and very nearly Minnesota rejected them only a few months ago. And why, despite an ostensibly popular Obama presidency, they now have less political power than at any point in memory. But this is hard and painful spadework, and what’s unearthed might prove unpleasant. So why bother?
What did the Democrats do to rebuild the faith and trust of the “forgotten” voters they still seem to have trouble remembering? They doubled down. The first thing they did after the biggest political disaster in their history was to keep their leadership team intact. In the House, they soundly rejected an Ohio Democrat (a what?) from blue-collar Youngstown (where?) in favor of a liberal from California, the state that single-handedly gave them the false comfort of a popular-vote victory in 2016. And they second thing they did was Russia, Russia, Russia.
Nothing seems to have been done to reach out to those who almost upended the Clinton coronation. Are Bernie Sanders’ voters now OK with the Democratic Party establishment? Who knows? Do the Democrats have a tax cut plan to aid the middle class, a position on trade to respond to the woes of the manufacturing class, or a plan to fix health care? Uh, boring! By the way, who is leading the Democratic Party today? Obama? Clinton? Pelosi? Schumer? Warren? TBD? Who cares?
The real answer, of course, appears to be Vladimir Putin. Whatever rhetorical white rabbit he sends out into the atmosphere, the Democrats scamper after. For those who haven’t been following their evolving storyline: The Russians tampered with the vote tallies in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and then had proof Trump hired prostitutes at a hotel in Moscow for some X-rated sex acts and then worked with Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort to rig the election and then somehow Jared Kushner got involved while Trump allegedly gave the Russians illegal intelligence and called the FBI director a nut job. Hard to follow? Well, don’t worry. It’s just bad, trust us, and we’ll prove it all, or part of it. Or move on to something else.
Besides the confusion, there’s another little problem with this modern remake of “From Russia With Love.” There are serious issues to be examined, to be sure, but they won’t be given a fair hearing when the Democratic Party, as partisan an organization as they come, is leading the effort every day. Politicizing the investigation from the outset, rather than giving the president the benefit of the doubt and letting investigators report their findings first after an impartial inquiry, severely jeopardizes the legitimacy of any potential prosecution. When half the country believes the Democrats and the media are in cahoots, and most partisans are siloed off to their favorite media outlets and eschewing other sources of information, it makes it hard for Watergate 2: The Series to make it on the airwaves. Even Mike Morrell, the former CIA acting director who accused Trump of being a Russian stooge as he signed up for the Clinton campaign, thinks the media is hyping the story and showing bias against the president.
There are, here and there, warning signs that maybe the Democrats might want to, you know, focus on their own political problems. In April, the DNC had its worst fundraising month in nearly a decade. As was seen in crucial states during the 2016 contest, African-American turnout remains a serious concern. The voters of admittedly red-state Montana just elected a guy who has been charged with assault instead of a (seemingly) competent Democrat with a clean police record. Reporters who actually spoke to voters in places like Ohio seem to have found some shrugs over the Russia frenzy. More than two-thirds of voters, according to at least one ABC News/Washington Post poll (if you believe polls anymore), said the Democrats were “out of touch.” The Democrats, yes the Democrats, scored lower than Trump and the Republicans on that issue.
President Trump, meanwhile, is trying to regain his message on border security, tax cuts, Obamacare repeal and telling off Europeans to their faces. You know, the kind of politically incorrect, occasionally rude things that actually ended up helping him win the election. A few weeks ago, a sociologist at Columbia University flatly predicted that Trump will be re-elected in 2020. In an even crueler blow to the Democrats, an ABC poll released in April found that Trump would beat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote if there were a hypothetical rematch. (A rematch that at least one humble genius long ago predicted.)
What should the Democrats do now? Obviously their current hope is that Trump will resign, or be impeached, or be so completely discredited with endless leaks, allegations and charges that anyone could beat him. (Where have we heard that strategy before?) Of course, if the Democrats do get their wish, and Trump is forced out early, then they get President Mike Pence—who has a pleasant demeanor, is an even more reliably conservative Republican than his boss and, last time I checked, does not have a secret Russian passport.
A smarter move for Democrats might be to forge and focus on their own policy agenda to reach the voters they lost. They might want to take a breath while they let the Justice Department’s special counsel, the widely acclaimed Robert Mueller, conduct his investigation independently. Pulling this off, of course, would require the Democrats to break their symbiotic relationship with the media. And the media will never let the Russia story go even if it sometimes reads like a low-rent John Le Carré novel.
Until wiser minds prevail, the Democrats seem to be betting that the entire Trump team will go to prison. A long shot, to be sure, but a hell of a lot easier than doing the difficult work of figuring out what American voters actually want.