Saturday, November 03, 2018


Near the end of his latest column, Bret Stephens writes:
Democrats should be walking away with the midterms.
This comes several paragraphs after he writes:
On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported the fastest rate of annual wage hikes in almost a decade, depriving Democrats of one of their few strong arguments about the true state of the economy. Unemployment is at its lowest rate since Vince Lombardi coached his last game in December 1969. The North American Free Trade Agreement has been saved with minor modifications and a new name.

Oh, and: The Islamic State is largely defeated. Tehran has not restarted its nuclear programs despite America’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. U.S. sanctions on Russia are still in place.
These are several reasons why Democrats shouldn't be walking away with the midterms. Why is Stephens scolding the Dems for failing under these circumstances?

And, of course, they're not failing, as Nate Silver makes clear in this response to a BBC newsreader who quoted the Stephens column:

Democrats might not take the House, or might take it with only a few seats to spare. They also might win big. No one knows yet. They're unlikely to win back the Senate. But they could win a lot of governorships and, if Charlie Cook is right, they could win several hundred state legislative seats nationwide -- this despite the gerrymandering they allowed to happen a decade ago, and despite the ongoing voter suppression in states such as Georgia, North Dakota, and Kansas.

Stephens's argument is muddled, but I think his point is that Trump has structural advantages, yet he's not using them.
In normal presidencies, good news, along with your opponents’ mistakes, is good politics. It’s your Topic A. In normal presidencies, the politics of cultural anxiety, social division or ethnic scaremongering — that is, of proposing the end of birthright citizenship and demonizing elite media and militarizing the U.S. border — is Plan B. It’s what you turn to first when you don’t have enough to say for yourself otherwise.

But that’s not how the Trump presidency rolls. In this campaign, fear is what’s on the Republican menu. Peace and prosperity? Mere side dishes.
But then Stephens makes the opposite argument -- that Trump's approach may be really smart:
There’s more than one type of intelligence. Trump’s is feral. It strikes fast. It knows where to sink the fang into the vein.

This has been Trump’s consistent strength from the moment he entered the Republican race until the second he got wind of the migrant caravan....

The secret of Trump’s politics is to mix fear and confidence — the threat of disaster and the promise of protection — like salt and sugar, simultaneously stimulating and satisfying an insatiable appetite. It’s how all demagogues work.
To sum up: Trump has a strong economy, hasn't plunged us into a new war, and is actually a shrewd demagogue. So why does Stephens conclude that Democrats are blowing an opportunity in the midterms? When he puts it that way, it's amazing that Democrats are on track for any gains at all.

(Also, "mix[ing] fear and confidence — the threat of disaster and the promise of protection" isn't just "how all demagogues work." It's how all successful Republicans work. Reagan promised to keep us safe with military might while warning us that the Nicaraguan Sandinistas were "just two days' driving time from Harlingen, Texas." George W. Bush was the flight-suit warrior whose administration warned us that the Iraqi smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud. This approach is nearly always effective. It's amazing if it's not effective for Trump.)

The incoherence of Stephens's argument is made clear by the two clauses I've highlighted below:
... several thousand people are pushing their way to the U.S. border with the idea that they will find a way to push their way through it. If they do, tens or even hundreds of thousands more will surely follow. It’s perfectly reasonable for fair-minded voters to wonder how the U.S. will vet and then absorb even a fraction of them (though I think we easily can), and what doing so will mean for our wider immigration system.

To which the Democratic response is — what, exactly?

If it’s “compassion,” it’s a non-answer. If it’s to abolish ICE, it’s a dereliction of responsibility for governance. If it’s to open the border, it is an honest form of political suicide. If it’s more trade and foreign aid for Central America, that’s a solution for the too-long term.

The truth is that there is no easy fix to the challenge of the caravan, which is why Trump was so clever to make the issue his own and Democrats have been so remiss in letting him have it.
Which is it? Can the system "easily" cope with the migrants (I think it can), or is the caravan a "challenge" with "no easy fix"? It's as if Stephens himself succumbs to Trumpian bombast over the course of a few paragraphs.

Or perhaps he just succumbs to his own long-standing knee-jerk contempt for Democrats, which has survived his anti-Trump apostasy and his move to The New York Times. Never mind the fact that Democrats have supported comprehensive immigration reform for years. Never mind the fact that while some Democrats and progressives want to abolish ICE, others just want to reform it. Never mind the fact that there isn't a single Democratic elected official who supports "open borders." Never mind the fact that Democrats were at the forefront of opposition to family separation, a broadly popular position.

Somehow, to Stephens, Democrats have no ideas and no moral standing. Democrats are faulted for being unable to counter Trump's demagoguery even though Stephens insists that demagoguery is effective (and even though the polls continue to suggest that this year it isn't particularly effective).

Ultimately, according to Stephens, it's up to Democrats to clean up problems they didn't create:
Our economic GDP may be booming, but our moral GDP is in recession. The tragedy of Pittsburgh illustrates, among other things, that the president cannot unite us, even in our grief. Whatever happens on Tuesday, Democrats will only win in 2020 if they find a candidate who can.
Well, Republicans won in 2016 without uniting us. Why do they just get to win and we don't? And what happens when a Democrat tries his or her damnedest to unite us -- you know, the way the last Democratic president did -- and Republicans organize around the message that they simply won't stand for an America united under a Democrat? Will that be the Democrats' fault, too?

No comments: