The anti-Trump bind for Democrats in 2020

The base is going to want F-bombs launched at Trump on national television. The general electorate is going to want a straightforward bread-and-butter agenda for working- and middle-class voters.

Possible Democratic candidates.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images, Tara Ziemba/Getty Images, Tatomm/iStock)

Hell in nine words: "The first Democratic presidential debate is still months away." Still?

Even more frightening than Monday's revelation that the Democratic primary season is fast approaching is the realization that nine is probably half the number of candidates who will hope to appear onstage during the first debate. By my count there are as many as 21 people with national profiles who have expressed an interest in running on more than one occasion, not counting obvious pranksters such as Oscar De La Hoya and Martin O'Malley. Probably, as with the Republicans in 2016, there will be a series of two-tiered debates, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the dining room at primetime and the mayors of random cities in the post-industrial Midwest sitting at the kids' table before most people get out of work. Among Republicans two years ago, only Carly Fiorina ever managed to increase her polling share enough to bump up to the main stage. Here's hoping the networks rethink this charade.

But among Democrats themselves, there are two lessons they ought to have taken away from 2016. The first is that in a 17-candidate field it is difficult to stand out, especially when everyone is saying more or less the same thing. Imagine Cory Booker attempting to make his position on ICE slightly woker than that of Kamala Harris, who is busy pointing out that Kristen Gilibrand only recently changed hers to bring it more in line with the progressive grassroots. How can these positions not blur in the minds of primary voters who are, as Vox pointed out recently, more than anything "pissed at Trump." For three years now Democrats have responded to Trump's bullying like a freshly-pantsed nerd feebly intoning "I know you are but what am I?" What the base wants now is someone who at least sounds like he would be not only willing to give the rich jerk a swirly but capable of actually forcing his orange head into the toilet.

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This is one reason that I do not rule out the chance of the nomination being seized in Trumpian fashion by an outsider candidate like Michael Avenatti. While the rest of the candidates whinge about Trump's badness in between articulating their bullet-pointed lists of Center for American Progress-approved policies, Avenatti could, for example, use a four-letter word on live television. The first time it happened it would slip past the network. Journalists and late-night hosts and morning shows would talk about nothing else for days. The next time the cable channels would be ready with their bleeps. "Is this being bleeped out on TV right now? It's not here. I can say f— and you people will hear me. [Laughter, thunderous applause.] Watch it on YouTube later."

Trump showed us these cheap tactics work. They allow a candidate to monopolize discussion, attracting the attention of less politically engaged voters while making the conversation among pundits entirely about him. Mainstream candidates will try and fail to play at this level, à la Marco Rubio's excruciating intervention in the Great 2016 Hand Size Debate. It is hard to think of anything backfiring worse than a bunch of former middle-school student council vice presidents trying to say the F-word with conviction.

Which brings me to the other lesson from the last election. However large hatred of the president looms in the priorities of the Democratic rank-and-file, and regardless of how much money it brings in, it will not win the White House. Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 largely because she drew attention to the not exactly inconspicuous bad behavior of her opponent at the expense of articulating her own agenda, such as it might have been. Improving margins in blue states with this kind of talk, however entertaining, will not help the party.

To win in 2020, Democrats must win over Trump voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida. The best way to do this is not to demonize the man they pulled the lever for at a time when declaring one's support for him publicly was the equivalent in liberal circles of joining a hate group. Instead, the best strategy for swing voters in the so-called purple states is very nearly the opposite: A winning candidate would politely acknowledge the economic and other anxieties to which Trump spoke so successfully in 2016 while pointing out that he has failed to deliver on his promise to put an end to "American carnage." He would probably also make a point of committing himself to — for example — the president's agenda on trade, even if it meant lying.

In other words, the sort of tactics that would allow a candidate to win his party's nomination might not play as well during the general election. This is a familiar political bind, though in the past it has mostly been a problem for Republicans transitioning from the ideologically purist conservative base who vote in primaries to ordinary Americans who just wish they had a bit more money on pay day.

The ultimate success of an Avenatti or some other tough-talking outsider will depend upon his or her ability to pivot from Trump-bashing to hammering a simple, straightforward bread-and-butter agenda for working- and middle-class voters.

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