A few days ago, Ericka Anderson, an old friend of National Review, popped up in the pages of the New York Times lamenting that “the Democratic presidential field neglects abundant pools of potential Democrat converts, leaving persuadable audiences — like independents and Trump-averse, anti-abortion Christians (some of whom are white evangelicals) — without options.”
It’s not fair to expect the Democratic party to re-tailor its positions to appeal to conservatives disgruntled with Trump. When a Democrat and a Republican get into a bidding war for the vote of a conservative, the Republican is almost always going to win. And Democrats could reasonably argue that depending on how strictly or narrowly you define it, the demographic consisting of never-Trump or Trump-skeptical or Trump-weary right-leaning voters is not big enough to be decisive in a race. Then again, after the 2016 election came down to Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Minnesota all being decided by 2 percent or less, perhaps no demographic should be written off as being too small to be decisive.
But through their actions, rhetoric, and policy stances, most Democrats are demonstrating that they are not willing to concede a rhetorical point or two to the conservatives, even if it would guarantee beating Trump. To right-leaning independents who have left the GOP, the distinctions between traditional Reaganite conservatism and modern Trumpism are crystal-clear and definitive. But to most Democratic lawmakers, meaningful differences between their old GOP foes and Trump are harder to find than Waldo. The “But Pence would actually be worse” arguments reveal that to many progressives, Trump is just a foul-mouthed Mitt Romney or a John McCain with bone spurs — a different version of the same villain they perceive every four years.
As a result, the Democratic party of 2020 has purged itself of almost anything that could appeal to these homeless conservatives. Picture a Democratic presidential candidate running this year who declared:
“Today’s Democratic Party also believes we must remain a nation of laws. We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it. For years, our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.”
“We are determined to balance the budget.”
“We want to strengthen middle-class families by providing a $500 tax cut for children. We want to cut taxes to help families pay for education after high school and to guarantee the first two years of college.”
“In the next four years, we must continue to work to lower foreign-trade barriers; insist that foreign companies play by fair rules at home and abroad.”
“We should expand public-school choice, and we should promote public charter schools that are held to the highest standards of accountability and access.”
“Our children’s education is not complete unless they learn good values. We applaud the efforts to promote character education in our schools. Teaching good values, strong character, and the responsibilities of citizenship must be an essential part of American education.”
“Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare.”
“We must rein in big government, slash burdensome regulations, eliminate wasteful programs, and shift problem-solving out of Washington and back to people and communities who understand their situations best.”
“The welfare system undermined the very values — work, family, and personal responsibility — that it should promote.”
“Today’s Democratic Party is unwilling to surrender to the voices of retreat and indifference. We believe the only way to ensure America’s security and prosperity over the long run is to continue exerting American leadership across a range of military, diplomatic, and humanitarian challenges around the world.”
“The Democratic Party remains committed to America’s long-standing special relationship with Israel, based on shared values, a mutual commitment to democracy and a strategic alliance that benefits both nations. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
A Democratic candidate who spoke like this would be mocked as wildly out of touch with the party’s base, a downright reactionary conservative Republican who is a Democrat in name only. The irony is that every policy position above is from the official 1996 Democratic-party platform. A lot of conservatives would read the above positions and cheerfully stride into the polling place to vote for a Democrat, if they believed the challenger would genuinely fight to enact the above proposals.
When a Democratic candidate’s criticism of Trump echoes that of the right, it’s rarely deliberate or all that convincing. You see Democrats accurately complaining that as a candidate and as a president, Trump has coarsened our public discourse. You rarely see Democrats follow up with an expression of disapproval of Rashida Tlaib’s shouting with glee that her party was going to “impeach the m***********.” They accuse Trump of being ignorant but they never get all that detailed in their policy proposals. They accuse him of being a pathological liar but won’t give a straight or realistic answer about the cost of their proposals.
Another big complication for the Democratic argument against Trump is that he has adopted a slew of their traditional positions. Democrats are usually the protectionist force in our politics, usually the side more reluctant to use military force, and traditionally the one more enthusiastic about meeting without preconditions with hostile states and dictators. The Democrats are half of our new bipartisan consensus that the deficits and the debt no longer matter, and that entitlement reform is unthinkable. President Trump created a new entitlement program, giving taxpayer-funded relief to farmers hit hard by his trade wars, which has so far cost twice as much as the 2009 bailout of the auto industry. A Republican president embraced big government, and now the party of big government has to figure out how to persuade people that Trump is wrong.
At the last debate, Democratic presidential candidates denounced President Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria and then promised to remove all U.S. forces from the Middle East. Democrats remain much angrier at Russia for running ads on Facebook in 2016 than for having military forces in eastern Ukraine. The Democratic presidential candidates’ objection to Trump’s negotiations with Kim Jong-un is that he’s giving the North Korean leader too many compliments; they’re almost all willing to meet face to face with the North Korean leader, certain that they could work out a better deal where Trump failed. This all amounts to Democrats pledging to replace the current ad hoc mess in foreign policy with a completely different ad hoc mess in foreign policy.
There’s a whole pool of voters in the middle — Trump-skeptical conservatives, independents, and not-so-progressive Democrats — who don’t like what they’re getting from Trump but aren’t eager to see a dramatic lurch to the left starting in 2021. But the leading Democrats have no interest in tweaking their positions to make even a pro forma outreach to Trump-skeptical conservatives. They are pushing all their chips to the center of the table and betting that the primary reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 was that she wasn’t liberal or progressive enough.
As the fictional ESPN8 commentator observes in the 2004 comedy Dodgeball, “That’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if that pays off for them.”