Sunday, April 21, 2019


This story, from Michael Scherer in The Washington Post, isn't bad, but it ascribes to Donald Trump a degree of power that he really doesn't have, which reinforces the myth of his god-like political powers:
Armed with Mueller report, Democrats confront challenge of Trump’s messaging machine

President Trump summarized the special counsel report on the day of its release with four words in all caps — “NO COLLUSION. NO OBSTRUCTION.”

The first two were not addressed by the report. The second two falsely described Robert S. Mueller III’s findings.

But the pithy declaration, set in a Game of Thrones “Game Over” meme and repeated frequently by Trump’s surrogates on television, helped to establish a reading of the report’s implications that Trump would embrace in the days to come.
This approach seems to be effective, at least with Trump's base. But it's not as if "No collusion, no obstruction" is a clever new talking point -- the guy's been saying it for so long that he's begun to seem like a talking parrot who knows only four words (three, really).

And it may be Trump who cooked up the catchphrase (we don't know -- it might also have been an aide), but it's not Trump who devised the stall-ball strategy whereby William Barr declared the report a complete victory for the president, kept the report secret for a month, then declared it a complete victory again before releasing it.

It's also not Trump who's responsible for Republican message discipline. Republicans have been extremely good at this for many years, since long before Trump entered politics. Because they have don't waste their time on political ideas (they have only five: cut taxes, cut regulations, expand gun access, restrict abortion and gay people, and seat ideological-clone judges), they have plenty of time to do what they're really good at, which is to attack their enemies and tout their own alleged monopoly on the truth in well-honed phrases. The only thing that's new is that their top phrase-honer is now the president of the United States.
In response, Democratic leaders offered no memes or catchphrases of their own.
Or maybe what seems to be Republican messaging brilliance is actually long-standing Democratic messaging ineptitude.

But it might not matter, because much of the public understands that Trump is a crook.

More from Scherer:
... It was an appropriate coda for an investigation that has always pitted at its core a nuanced examination of fact and law — 448 pages, footnotes included — against the blunt force of Trump’s sloganeering.

For Democrats aiming to topple Trump in the 2020 election, the contrast was a stark reminder of the challenges ahead in a country where political information travels largely through polarized channels that can be shaped by a president fluent in angry denunciations of his enemies, tribal appeals to his base and frequent misdirection.
Again, Sherer writes as if it's all Trump, and as if the base-only strategy will inevitably work. We don't know that. It didn't work in 2018. It worked in 2016 because of James Comey and Russia and the fact that the mainstream media as well as the GOP dumped 25 years' worth of negativity on Hillary Clinton's head.
... Most strategists planning for the general election campaign against Trump expect to focus far less on Trump’s behavior and personal qualities than Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 election.

“If in a year I am talking about the Mueller report, I am losing,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster who advises the presidential campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). “Because the election is going to be about the economy.”
The election is not going to be about the economy. The election is going to be a referendum on Trump -- or, if Republicans succeed in gulling the mainstream media the way they often do, it will be a referendum on the evils of the Democratic Party, and the Democratic nominee in particular. But that didn't work in 2018, despite strenuous GOP efforts to demonize Democrats on Brett Kavanaugh and immigration.
... “Donald Trump wins in a reality show and loses in reality,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “If he is able to brand things like a reality show host, he will win the debate. But that only works until people start to see the consequences.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, ... are preparing a rival reality show of their own through hearings with Attorney General William P. Barr and others.
Notice how a long-established method of holding officeholders accountable is now redefined as just one more Trump technique, with Democrats doing an imitation of Trump.
...Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, have come out of the box with clearly defined lines — no collusion, no obstruction — and little concern for accurately capturing the nuance of what Mueller actually found.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway announced that she is ready to accept apologies from Trump’s critics. Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani have made clear that the president will continue to deny parts of the report that are unfavorable to him, even though Barr has praised the “thoroughness” of the work.
I agree that Republicans are better messagers, and I appreciate Scherer's acknowledgment that they're liars, but the assumption here is that the GOP approach is working. Is it?
... The president’s position is strengthened by his political environment. He enjoys a Gallup approval rating near historic highs of 45 percent in April, up from 39 percent in March.
Yes, but a new Reuters/Ipsos poll says that Trump's post-release approval rating equals his lowest rating of the year -- 37% approval, 56% disapproval.
... he maintains a firm handle on the same national divisions and media landscape that he exploited to win office.
Again, the assumption is that he can pull of two fluky wins in a row. It might happen, but it might not.
Ever since he entered the 2016 presidential race and began dispatching rivals with schoolyard nicknames, Trump has shown a remarkable ability to create and deploy barbed catchphrases that cut through the din.
Trump is ... pretty good at this. He's not great. "No collusion"? Not bad. "Shifty Schiff"? "Eighteen angry Democrats"? Not working. Trump only seems like the most talented name-caller in politics because most politicians are emotional adults who don't even try to do what he does.
... Trump ... has created his own media channels, and been aided by supportive networks of journalists and pundits he frequently praises.
Now Trump is getting credit for creating media channels. He created Twitter? He created Fox News?
... The marching orders [for Democrats] are clear, said Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who also worked for Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

“Conduct a follow-through investigation out of the committees that is really just an attempt to enter into the record that which most of the public will never read in the Mueller report,” he said. “Turn it into something that gets played out on a very public stage.”

Trump will be ready and waiting with a top-rated reality show of his own.
So I guess the Democrats shouldn't even bother, because Mr. 37% Approval is "ready and waiting" to counterattack and is therefore unbeatable. I'm usually a glass-half-empty guy, and I agree that Democrats are weak at messaging, but even I'm not that pessimistic.

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