Sunday, November 04, 2018


The Democratic Party seem to be on the verge of a pretty good set of midterms, so -- of course -- it's time for the commentariat to talk about all of the party's flaws. Today Ross Douthat does his bit by arguing that Democrats just got lucky this year.
To understand this good fortune, consider two counterfactuals. In the first, the last 21 months proceeded in exactly the same fashion — with the strongest economy since the 1990s, full employment almost nigh, ISIS defeated, no new overseas wars or major terrorist attacks — except that Donald Trump let his staffers dictate his Twitter feed, avoided the press except to tout good economic news, eschewed cruelties and insults and weird behavior around Vladimir Putin, and found a way to make his White House a no-drama zone.

In this scenario it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s approval ratings wouldn’t have floated up into the high 40s; they float up into the mid-40s as it is whenever he manages to shut up. Even with their threadbare and unpopular policy agenda, Republicans would be favored to keep the House and maintain their state-legislature advantages. All the structural impediments to a Democratic recovery would loom much larger, Trump’s re-election would be more likely than not, and his opposition would be stuck waiting for a recession to have any chance of coming back.
But Republicans began the 2018 campaign by trying to run on the record of the past two years, particularly the economy, and it wasn't working. As a recent Times story noted, the suburbs aren't particularly impressed by Trump/GOP economic policies because the economy was already good in suburbia before Trump came along. And there's still economic anxiety in much of America. That's why the party needed culture war to fire up the base. (And as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings made clear, you don't need to be Trump to be a rabble-rousing culture warrior -- even Lindsey Graham can pull it off.)

In this first counterfactual, Douthat imagines a fantasy Trump, one who can turn off the poisonous parts of his personality and quell his junkie's need for attention. No such Trump exists, or could possibly exist. What Douthat writes next is even more absurd:
Then consider a second counterfactual. Imagine that instead of just containing himself and behaving like a generic Republican, Trump had actually followed through on the populism that he promised in 2016, dragging his party toward the economic center and ditching the G.O.P.’s most unpopular ideas. Imagine that he followed through on Steve Bannon’s boasts about a big infrastructure bill instead of trying for Obamacare repeal; imagine that he listened to Marco Rubio and his daughter and tilted his tax cut more toward middle-class families; imagine that he spent more time bullying Silicon Valley into inshoring factory jobs than whining about Fake News; imagine that he made lower Medicare drug prices a signature issue rather than a last-minute pre-election gambit.

This strategy could have easily cut the knees out from under the Democrats’ strongest appeal, their more middle-class-friendly economic agenda, and highlighted their biggest liability, which is the way the party’s base is pulling liberalism way left of the middle on issues of race and culture and identity. It would have given Trump a chance to expand his support among minorities while holding working-class whites, and to claim the kind of decisive power that many nationalist leaders around the world enjoy. It would have threatened liberalism not just with more years out of power, but outright irrelevance under long-term right-of-center rule.
It would also have required Trump not to be a Republican. I know that a lot of supposedly smart people think Trump is still ideologically malleable, but he isn't -- he's been a binge watcher of Fox News for years, and like so many old white Americans, that's made him ideologically rigid and extreme. As a result, on most issues, Trump is a down-the-line Murdoch/Koch ideologue; he'll never favor the middle class over the rich, and he'll never support policies (such as a real infrastructure program) that would need to be enacted over the objections of the congressional GOP, because Foxism also means that you never do anything that makes the other team look good. (You could also call this McConnellism.)

Douthat's argument seems to be: Imagine if we Republicans had all of our current advantages, none of our current disadvantages, and quite a few advantages we don't have now. Then the Democrats would be in trouble! And that just shows how weak the Democrats really are! Yeah, I guess.

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