How to beat Trump in 2020
It can be done. But Democrats need to start employing a smarter strategy — and fast.
President Trump — master of turning subtext into text — has made it official: He's running for president again in 2020. Trump announced earlier this week that he's hired his campaign manager — a full 980 days before Election Day 2020. (This move, it must be said, wasn't exactly a shock, not least because Trump actually filed re-election paperwork the day he moved into the White House.)
Serious activists shouldn't let their attention get too far ahead of this year's midterm elections. Congress is a co-equal branch of government, after all. But with Trump already embarking on his re-election bid, it's not too early for his opponents to begin strategizing for the next presidential election too, even though it won't take place for another 32 months.
What should these Democrats (and anti-Trump conservatives) do to dethrone the leader they loathe? Here's a five-step plan for doing in 2020 what they couldn't do in 2016: Defeat Donald Trump.
1. Realize that Trump is vulnerable
During the 2016 election, Trump appeared to be entirely scandal- and gaffe-proof. Incidents that would have spelled political death for any other candidate — criticizing Gold Star families, getting caught on Access Hollywood musing about his power to treat women like objects for his pleasure — only seemed to strengthen his standing with supporters. "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," he said, not without some truth.
Trump's seeming invulnerability to the usual rules of politics got inside Democrats' heads. Yes, Trump won. But he has been, since Day One, one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of the country. Democrats won a majority of the popular vote in 2016; they should be able to do it again in 2020. Except for flukes in the election map traceable to America's odd Electoral College, they start the race for 2020 in good position. Trump shouldn't be able to psych opponents out: He's vulnerable.
This may sound like little more than the power of positive thinking, but it really matters. As but one example, for the Democrats to recruit the best candidates, the party's stars have to see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the presidency from an incredibly hobbled incumbent. Don't believe that Trump is bulletproof against the normal rules of politics. He's weak.
2. Take nothing for granted — and expand the map
One of the biggest problems of the 2016 cycle is that everybody — Trump included — thought Hillary Clinton would win. That presumption led to a cascade of failures: The Clinton campaign, for example, famously failed to send its candidate to Wisconsin during the general election campaign. Hillary Clinton herself admitted her campaign was "caught by surprise" in that state when Trump won. Indeed, it was the first GOP presidential victory in Wisconsin since 1984.
It's difficult to win elections you don't contest. Democrats shouldn't assume that any state is reliably and certainly theirs.
But it's about more than showing up to safe states. Democrats also shouldn't just concede territory to Republicans. When he was chair of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean oversaw a "50-state strategy" that attempted to put up a candidate for election wherever there was a partisan race to be found. That strategy helped lay the foundation for Barack Obama's stunning victory in 2008.
So get out there. Make Trump earn all his votes — including the Electoral College votes.
3. Stand for something
Another problem with 2016's presumption that Clinton would win: Everyone thought that Trump was such a manifestly unattractive candidate that all his opponents had to do was Not Be Trump, show voters how unfit he was for the presidency, and wait for his campaign to unravel. That didn't work.
One study found that 90 percent of Clinton's attack ads were about Trump as a person (as opposed to his policies). Surely you saw this ad on television more than a few times in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
What did Hillary Clinton stand for? Why was she running? To millions of voters, she seemed to stand only for the old guard elite. And she was running because it was her turn, damn it.
Sure, Clinton can point to her binder full of position papers from the campaign. But being wonkish is not the same thing as standing for something, at least not to most casual voters. By contrast, it was easy to clearly distil the point and purpose of Trump's campaign stand — so easy, in fact, that the four words fit on a red baseball cap. And that message appealed to millions of Americans who (not unjustly) felt that this country and its leaders had failed them.
The Democratic candidate in 2020 must clearly stand for something. Maybe, in the Trump tradition, that thing will be vague, and its attendant promises slightly outlandish. But it must be big, bold, and easily graspable.
There's increasing talk, in this age of outsourcing and automation, of providing a guaranteed minimum income to all Americans. Is 2020 the year a Democratic candidate takes that proposal to voters? Should they get behind single-payer health care? Free college? Massive gun reform? Democrats need to take some big swings — and make sure voters understand them.
4. Move beyond the baby boomers
A bold new message of change simply cannot come from the same old generation of candidates. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders: I'm sorry, but this means you.
Trump's appeal largely comes from his hearkening back to some mythical golden age in America's past. "Make America Great Again" is a lament for something lost. A Democratic candidate can't and shouldn't try to compete on those grounds. And while an elder messenger can certainly offer a refreshingly progressive message (as Sanders did in 2016), it it clearly time for a new generation of leaders in the Democratic Party.
That means Democrats should pick a younger candidate with a bold and forward-looking agenda — one that gives voters hope for their own individual futures. That agenda needs a much fresher face to represent it, not somebody who carries the baggage of 30, 40, or more years on the public scene.
5. Protect the integrity of America's elections
None of these points will win the election if Democrats don't commit themselves to one final point of action: safeguarding our elections from internal and external threats. That means fighting every attempt by Republicans to restrict voting in battleground states; it also means doing everything possible to safeguard against the hacking of our election by outsiders — whether that's via voting machines or Russian ads on Facebook.
Winning in 2020, then, means smart politicking and good governance. President Trump is already making his plans. Are Democrats?