As I write this, we are just hours away from the first debate of the presidential primary season. It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since the last round of primary debates. It feels like 40. But here we are, getting ready to embark on yet another presidential campaign featuring Donald Trump. Everyone on the planet has advice for the Democratic candidates about what they need to do to beat him. It may be the most annoying conversation in all of politics, and that’s saying something.
The pundits are all dully blathering on about “lanes” again, extending the horse race metaphor to ridiculous lengths, as they did in the GOP primaries in 2016. So far they’ve declared the lanes to be “establishment,” “insurgent,” “youth,” “black vote” and “working class.” And yes, they are meaningless, since the person who wins the nomination will have to take up big parts of all these “lanes” and more. But it makes it easy for pundits and analysts to drone on endlessly about polling, despite the fact that there is very little chance this campaign will end up going the way they predict.
Former candidates have been all over TV the past week or so talking about what the candidates absolutely must do in these first debates, which almost always comes down to “getting attention” and “being themselves.” I’m sure that’s good advice, but I would guess that anyone who needs to be told this probably shouldn’t be running for president. In fact, they probably shouldn’t be in politics at all.
Of all the annoying advice inundating us in recent days, the most irritating has to be that coming from the NeverTrumpers, meaning those conservatives and Republicans who never supported the president and are eager to drive him from office. First, let me say I totally believe that they, like the majority of Americans, are desperate to defeat Trump, and I would never reject anyone who wants to enter the fray to make that happen. I’m not a NeverTrumper-basher. (I also understand that some of them have a lot to answer for in terms of how we got to this point, and I look forward to the day when the Trump emergency has passed and we can sort all that out. If that day doesn’t come, we will have bigger problems to worry about.) I welcome them to the fight.
So I hope the NeverTrump troops don’t take this the wrong way. But they really need to zip it when it comes to haranguing Democrats about their primary. They particularly need to stop speaking to the Democratic base as if they were a bunch of fools who need remedial lessons in politics from Republicans, the people who couldn’t stop Donald Trump from snagging the nomination right out from under them. They should know better than anyone that running against him is like running against an alien from outer space. There is only one race that Democrats and NeverTrumpers can look to for clues about how to defeat him — and neither of them were successful, so nobody gets to claim the high ground here.
Here’s an example of the discussion from one of my favorite NeverTrumpers, strategist Rick Wilson, who is wildly entertaining and spot-on about Trump:
I hate to preen and front, but it must be pointed out that the Republicans have only won the popular vote once in the last 31 years and the two other Electoral College victories were more than a little bit suspect.
Strategists in both parties have had big victories. Again, nobody knows the magic formula that will beat Trump.
More importantly, NeverTrumpers telling Democrats what they shouldn’t do is even worse. It’s not just insulting, it’s also strangely naive. In a way, it explains why some of these folks were so surprised that a demagogic con man took out that venerable list of GOP all-stars back in 2016, with none other than the odious Sen. Ted Cruz being the last man standing. These are not normal times, and simply assuming that the way for Democrats to win is to be more like pre-Trump Republicans is going to fall on deaf ears, and for good reason:
Telling Democrats to be more like Mitch McConnell in the same breath as saying they should stop talking about court packing and the electoral college doesn’t make sense. When they talk about those things they are being like McConnell. It’s not as if he has ever concealed his agenda.
Nichols refers above to former talk-show host and prominent NeverTrumper Charlie Sykes, who wrote a snarky piece for Politico this week laying out a long list of all the things the Democrats need to stop doing if they want to beat Trump. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly standard hippie-bashing, including admonitions not to “embrace the weird,” which, coming from a Republican, is just a bit rich these days. Sykes also suggests that Democrats should talk about priorities on issues like health care, immigration and abortion as if they were moderate Republicans. Indeed, it appears he thinks they should adopt Jeb Bush’s agenda from 2016 — because that’s definitely what Americans really want.
This line of argument will not convince too many Democrats, whether they are leaning toward Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Andrew Yang. I’m sorry, but there is no “Jeb Bush lane” in the Democratic Party.
As this excellent post by Neil H. Buchanan at The Verdict legal blog points out, NeverTrumpers are “perfectly satisfied with the radical-right changes wrought by Republicans (and triangulating Democrats) over the past four decades. … By contrast, it is on matters of process, not substance, that the anti-Trump right actually has a good point to make.”
In other words, their appalled reaction to the assault on the Constitution, and on the political norms that make it possible for the system to function, is where they have the power to make a difference. As Buchanan writes, “American conservatives who are genuine ‘constitutional conservatives’ understand that there are more important things than, say, the optimal design of the estate tax. … If you are on the winning side in the fight to save our constitutional democracy, you can live to fight another day to attempt to reverse your losses in the fights over various substantive policies. But the opposite is not true, because if we lose the fight for our political system, there will be no more opportunities to fight for anything else.”
I know these guys want Democrats to beat Donald Trump. But Democrats have a large coalition that must be respected by their leaders. These Republicans should take their own smug advice, get off Twitter and pay attention to what’s happening on the ground. They’ll find a party that is ideologically diverse, and even more committed to defeating Donald Trump than they are. Democrats will make their decisions accordingly.
But if there are Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who are appalled by Trump’s assault on the system and the Republican Party’s descent into madness, these NeverTrumpers could make their best contribution e by helping those folks realize that stopping Trump means we can all live to fight each other another day on the issues where we may strongly disagree. There’s no guarantee of that if Trump wins again.