TrumpCare’s Failure and a Positive Agenda Can Help Us Chip Away at Trump’s Supporters

I’m sure that you are as happy as I am that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The GOP’s failure to “repeal and replace” the ACA preserves a critical policy that has provided health insurance to more than 20 million Americans. And from a political perspective it gives Democrats an opportunity to start chipping away at Trump’s support among his own base by undermining Trump’s image as an effective leader who can deliver on his promises. Eroding that image and beginning to put forward a compelling policy agenda of our own are two key steps to regaining power in 2018, 2020 and beyond.

Polling from last year made clear that one of Trump’s selling points was his ability to project an image as a capable leader who could shake up Washington and deliver for his supporters. While pretty much everyone reading this piece has long viewed Trump as a charlatan who lied about his corporate success and who probably did no better in business than he would have done parking his inheritance from his dad in an S&P index fund, a healthy majority Americans saw him differently during 2016: for example, a Gallup poll last September found that Americans gave Trump positive ratings on “being a strong and decisive leader” (57%) and “can get things done” (56%). (Clinton also got solid marks on both attributes). November exit polling suggested that strong leadership was important to voters on Election Day, with the Politico/Morning Consult exit poll showing that a 36% plurality of voters identified “strong leader” as the most important personal characteristic in choosing a president, well ahead of other characteristics such as “has a vision for the future” (29%) and “shares my values” (17%).

Recent pre-TrumpCare care vote polling suggests that Trump continued to receive relatively positive marks on leadership and effectiveness during his first two months in office despite the fact that a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance as President. For example, an Economist/YouGov poll last week found that 54% of Americans rated Trump as either “very strong” or “somewhat strong” with respect to “leadership ability,” with 90% of self-identified Republicans giving Trump positive marks on leadership. A February in-depth Pew Poll of Americans’ perceptions of Trump found that a strong, 60% majority of Americans viewed Trump as someone who “kept promises” and that 54% viewed him “able to get things done” — even though a solid a majority of poll respondents disliked Trump’s overall job performance.

As George W. Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove, a longtime proponent of “attack your opponents’ strength” political tactics, demonstrated during the 2000 and 2004 elections, going after a political adversary’s perceived strengths can be a deadly line of attack. Even if it doesn’t win supporters to your side, it can at least dampen enthusiasm for your opponent and increase your relative performance. While a majority of Americans have disapproved of Trump since Inauguration Day, Trump has continued to hold the support of something on the order of 40%-45% of Americans — a number that has remained fairly constant even as the number of Americans who disapprove of Trump has increased. The increase in the number of people who disapprove of Trump’s job performance has not been because we have taken away Trump’s base support; it has been because a number of people who were previously undecided about how Trump is doing on the job are beginning to disapprove. For example, this past weekend’s RealClearPolitics chart shows that Trump’s current average job approval rating is 42.7%, only about 1.5% lower than he was in Inauguration Day — demonstrating that his base support is still strong. Focusing on making Trump look weak and feckless can help us begin turning away his base supporters to drive his approval number lower.

At some point before the 2018 midterms, however, Democrats will also need to offer a compelling alternative message and agenda, especially on economics: While making Trump look feckless should begin to chip away at his supporters, at some point before November 2018, Democrats are going to have to figure out an affirmative agenda to run on in order to move persuadable voters into our camp and to motivate our own soft supporters.

Like many of you, I’ve read the argument in the Indivisible Guide and in some recent articles that Democrats should be the “Party of No.” Focusing on opposition to Trump, rather than an affirmative agenda, does keep Democrats united and Trump and the Republicans have created a target-rich environment of gaffes and bad policies for us to target. We should do everything in our power to block Trump’s actions and we should avoid collaborating with him. And the Indivisible Guide does offer a valuable playbook of tactics to block the Trump/GOP agenda.

But when it comes to winning elections ourselves, the fact is that the three major swing congressional elections of the last 30 years have all been won in part by the winning party putting forward an affirmative agenda: the GOP had the “Contract with America” in 1994; in 2006 Democrats had a mix of “end the Iraq war,” economic populism, and an anti-corruption/good government message (for example, Democrats ended congressional earmarks in early 2007); and in 2010 the GOP/Tea Party had a message of rolling back government. Though the press often portrays the Tea Party as a negative force — and there is no denying that the Tea Party was powered in part by anti-Obama vitriol — portraying the Tea Party as a “party of no” is only half right. In addition to capturing and feeding inchoate anger at Obama and resisting the President, the Tea Party offered its supporters and voters a specific diagnosis of America’s problems and a ready-made solution: for the Tea Party, America’s problems were largely the result of job killing regulations, bailouts for irresponsible individuals and companies, and other government overreach, and the logical solution was to cut the government. This was a wrong-headed policy argument, but it was an affirmative policy argument — and in many respects it was an updated, angrier version of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Inaugural line that “in the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Furthermore, contrary to what most of us intuitively think, from the perspective of media buys, Trump’s successful 2016 campaign was actually reasonably policy-focused. Yes, Trump’s “policy” throughout 2016 was largely fake and had no substance behind it. And yes, much of that policy was abhorrent to core American values, such as Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. But Trump was out on the campaign trail talking about policy issues. Indeed, one of the most surprising studies I have seen of the 2016 campaign is a recent Wesleyan University study that concluded Trump’s TV advertising was nearly three times as focused on policy as Clinton’s TV advertising. Of course Hillary had infinitely more actual policy than Donald Trump did — nearly 300 well-researched white papers, compared to a handful of bullet-points and minute-long “policy videos” unsupported by any actual facts. Hillary and her top aides gave numerous detailed policy speeches, far more than Trump ever did. But when it came to the hundreds of thousands of ads that the presidential campaigns and outside groups used to make their case to swing and persuadable voters, only about 25% of Clinton campaign ads and pro-Clinton ads by outside groups focused on policy issues, compared to about 70% of Trump and pro-Trump ads. While Clinton and her close advisors cared passionately about policy and had a well-developed set of policies for governing, the unfortunate fact was that the press generally didn’t cover her policy speeches (instead chasing the daily Trump eruptions) and her ad and media buying team decided largely to focus on criticizing Donald Trump’s many odious statements rather than arguing issues to voters.

I tend to agree with political consultant Allan Rivlin who argued in a recent interview that Democrats need a succinct policy messaging that both gives a diagnosis of the problem and offers a solution, much as the Tea Party message of “job killing-regulations and taxes are hurting America, and we will repeal them” offers both a diagnosis of the problem and a solution. And we need to make sure that the Democratic policy agenda is appealing to voters in the places we need to reach — swing states. Based on a number of conversations and interviews I have had in recent months with people in swing states, I think that Clinton, in addition to focusing too little on policy in her paid media, probably had a policy message that was both too complicated and did not seem responsive to the basic, broadly shared economic problems confronting a broad range of voters in the key swing states. We as a party need to spend the next 15 months figuring out our positive messages on the economic, security, and social fronts that resonate in the key swing states so that we have a coherent positive plan to run on by the time the 2018 midterm cycle really heats up. (Focusing on policy areas where Trump is betraying his base may offer particular targets of opportunity).

Finally, I do worry that we as a party are at some risk of becoming too focused on the Russia issue and on the pervasive, likely illegal conflicts of interest that Trump has brought into office — rather than a policy agenda that wins in swing states. As someone who spent much of my time in 2014 working to create existing U.S. sanctions on Russia, I fervently hope that Congress will override Trump and enact still more sanctions on Russia and certainly agree that we need a full, independent investigation into potential Trump-Russia links and that we need to hold Putin to account. I find it unconscionable that any Senator would vote for a Trump Supreme Court nominee until we fully understand if the Trump campaign did, in fact, collaborate with Russia during the election. And Trump’s ethical standards admittedly resemble those of a third world kleptocrat. That said, absent a real smoking gun showing Trump-Russia collaboration or overt Trump corruption, my hunch is that most persuadable voters are more concerned about what Trump will do for them vs. the Democrats will do for them.

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