Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

The Democrats’ 2020 Playbook

Trump at his inauguration, January 20, 2017 (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump, by David Plouffe (Penguin, 256 pp., $25), and How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take, by Mark Halperin (Regan Arts, 253 pp., $22)

Settling in over the holidays to study these two books offering a Democratic take on 2020 presidential politics, I looked forward to a week or two of relief from the “Resistance” hysteria that the subject invites. The hard numbers, the electoral map, and perhaps some strategy intel from the shrewdest minds in the Democratic party were all I wanted. But it turns out that even when they are trying their very best to think straight and focus simply on winning, there is no escape from the melodrama.

Here, for instance, is Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe, a very capable man who I was sure would have all kinds of smart things to say about the shape of the coming race. “The year 2016,” he begins, “will scar us for as long as we breathe the same air that Trump befouls with his every word.” It was a “historically disturbing and perhaps democracy-destroying outcome,” that night when a “racist,” “idiot,” and “sociopath” became America’s president-elect. Elsewhere, at length and repeatedly in A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump, Plouffe asks like-minded readers to relive the torment and trauma they endured as states once “Obama blue” turned red, the better to strengthen their resolve and heighten their sense of grievance, closing with his idea of a stirring exhortation for 2020: “On November 3, let’s make them pay for their attack on our Democracy.”

In the sweep of history, the reader wonders, might we find another presidential election that, by instructive contrast to the “stain” of 2016, provides a shining example of “America’s revered political system in action”? I don’t want to ruin it for you, but let’s just say that when you’re dealing with David Plouffe, only one candidate gets credit for “the audacity to win.”

That was the title of his insider account of the 2008 Democratic campaign against John McCain, and in this book, too, all things exalted are summed up in the figure of one man, and in that one Eternal Moment for progressives amid the raptures of Grant Park. Such a “blissful” time for Democrats, Plouffe writes, such a “virtuous circle,” as “me” became “we” and so many embraced the joy of “living part of their lives every day through and on behalf of Barack Obama” — the kind of high that the “MAGA gang” will never know. This leaves the problem that some 7 or 8 million citizens who supported Obama also decided to vote for Donald Trump — only because, says Plouffe, “they were duped, obviously,” and now the party must “undupe” them. Part of the mission in 2020 will be persuading them “to come back to the light.”

I’m not sure those voters would care for the ring of that, but it doesn’t really matter because, in A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump, they are quickly forgotten anyway and most of Plouffe’s boots-on-the-ground coaching is directed to the teens and twenty-or thirtysomethings he is counting on to rise up this year with their own “Yes, we can!” That explains the page after page of breezy rapping about the unique “passion and creativity” his youthful readers can offer the cause (by painting campaign posters or street art, texting political messages, posting stuff on Facebook — whatever’s “your jam”), his fatherly advice for driving voters to the polls (“Treat every supporter of our nominee as a precious, fragile egg”), some John Lennon lyrics to get the activism vibe going, storytime reminiscences of Barack versus Mitt, and constant scary talk about how democracy itself might not survive a Trump second term.  

The seething over 2016 always leads to reveries about 2008. American democracy is to be “revered” only when it produces satisfactory results. Indeed, concluding his save-our-democracy checklist for Millennials, Plouffe adds a few therapeutic touches to advise on viewing election returns — where and with whom to watch, what meals to prepare — so that everybody will feel safe that night and able to cope with the anxieties of an experience that might not always conform to their precise wishes. And remember, 

if you’re with family and you have kids who were old enough to be traumatized by Trump’s election and all that has come since, make sure they have friends with them as well. They’ll give you a furtive hug or a high-five, but sharing and celebrating a return to the America they want to grow up in and will soon enough eventually contribute to and lead will be most meaningful with people their own age, both the memories that are created and the conversations they will have. 

When the winner is declared, he suggests, switch over to the folks on Fox News to savor their trauma. A good chance to teach the kids the thrill of revenge.  

He is a serious, accomplished fellow, and the book, by his own terms, is well meant. The effort is undone by a tone so relentlessly silly and overwrought that it takes on the feel of some mischievous parody, A Citizen’s Guide to Self-Defeating Liberal Sanctimony. And all of this as he also pauses to warn us that “hyperbole infects our political coverage and commentary.”

Likewise, turning to Mark Halperin’s How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take, we have another book promising straightforward political analysis but quickly overtaken by the moral preening its topic inspires.

Here, too, we find political professionals in a state of “sheer terror” as they grapple with the mystery of how someone they so detest can hold such appeal to the voters they need. “Democrats all across the country,” Halperin reports, “are declaring they will do absolutely anything to prevent Trump from causing further damage to American democracy” — the initial damage having been done by prevailing in an election. “In their view,” we learn, “a Trump loss would signify a restoration of order, balance, decency. A Trump reelection, meanwhile, would portend the death of reason, the end of all that is good in America, and the potential downfall of human civilization.” 

Oh, to see order, balance, and decency again! Think of Democrats during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the rebirth of reason all that foreshadowed. The high-minded talk becomes only more unbearable when one of the strategists gets sentimental: “He’s not just ignorant, he’s insulting,” the man says of Trump. “I think we all have a different idea of what the enemy looks like. John McCain, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney. They’d all be fine presidents. George H. W. Bush, 41. What I wouldn’t give to have a person like that in the White House today.” A touching look back to that better time in American life when these now-lionized Republican statesmen were treated with honorable self-restraint by the Democratic Left, and never with malice. Remember that? Figure out what else our nominees of 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012 had in common and you have the key to retroactive enshrinement in the liberal pantheon of civility and decency.

An unavoidable sidebar to the great civilizational struggle described in How to Beat Trump concerns the author himself. Halperin must have winced at the outbursts of self-pity and feigned outrage he was jotting down, having himself recently discovered what a thoroughly uncharitable lot they can be on the left. An industrious and once celebrated reporter and MSNBC analyst, he’s venturing a comeback after a 2017 career crash involving sexual harassment. The offenses, occurring a decade or so earlier, were by his own admission awful; he has emphatically apologized to his victims; and a statement from his publisher, Judith Regan  (“I have . . . lived long enough to believe in the power of forgiveness, second chances, and offering a human being a path to redemption”), will for most readers hit the right note. Not good enough, however, for the hanging judges who determine such matters and who have insisted that Halperin be shunned, his book be ignored by reviewers and cable shows, and the strategists who dared speak with him make public confessions of their error.

We should credit Halperin for perseverance, for striving contritely to earn back his livelihood and dignity, as a man and as the father of a young son, and, not least, for conceiving as propitiatory a book title as could be imagined to try, at least, softening up his former friends in the media elite. Beating Trump is their “jam,” as Plouffe might put it. And when we get past the posturing by Democrats, including the solemn pronouncements of constitutional crisis they were offering even before a contrived impeachment, the book offers lessons that warrant attention. 

Much of the advice from strategists, typical in their field, hangs in the air awaiting elaboration. How can a Democratic nominee beat Trump? Well, “you have to tell a better story about America than he does.” “Find the right tone and say the right things.” “You’ve got to be extremely disciplined in terms of message delivery.” What about Obama-to-Trump voters?  “You have to spend some time with these people.” A few Republicans disdainful of Trump are also consulted, mostly to share their continuing concerns about the coarsening influence of millions of working people suddenly arriving in the party formerly known as the “Big Tent.” But skipping all that, the book’s recurring theme is hard to miss: how, in the Democratic party, progressive fanaticism threatens to blow an otherwise attainable victory.

Inflamed by the moment, many Democrats yearn to run with an all-out, “woke,” go-for-broke campaign. It’s time for America to hear the whole “intersectional” list of outrages and demands — all-pervading racism, recognition of assorted genders, abortion at any stage, “white-male privilege,” open borders, wealth redistribution, reparations for slavery, “climate justice,” and more — as 2020 promises a historic, fully mobilized “coalition of the ascendant” against the despised foe. Meanwhile a few party elders cited in the book, such as David Axelrod, advise a more measured and judicious approach, lest those “precious, fragile eggs” of Plouffe’s start hatching again into Trump voters.  

If you’ve got that, then you are current on the state of play in the Democratic primaries, about which Halperin’s strategists were already getting nervous last year. Here was an elementary political challenge involving the lost loyalty, in 2016, of millions of mostly white working men and women whose votes made the difference in the swing states, giving Trump his Big Three — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — by fewer than 78,000 votes combined. Whom has the Democratic party lined up to reclaim those pivotal votes? Among the contenders: The gruff socialist from Burlington, Vt. The preposterous former “woman of color” from Harvard Law School. And, also bearing the Harvard stamp, the preachy former mayor of a college town. (Although we can’t afford to take Mayor Pete Buttigieg too lightly because he was, after all, placed in that crucible of leadership by the votes of 11,000 people in total, which is very nearly the population of Wasilla, Alaska.)

Axelrod, the level-headed former chief strategist and presidential aide to Obama, describes to Halperin a more moderate course designed to exploit “the sheer sense of exhaustion that Trump has created,” doubtless recognizing that the Democratic Left has an “exhaustion” factor of its own. And, of course, this approach would square with the party’s winning general-election formula, since at least their catastrophe of 1972, of advancing liberal causes under cover of calming, moderate rhetoric. Why wouldn’t this offer their best chance again in 2020?  

Unless the late-arriving Michael Bloomberg can catch on, the most plausible candidate attempting the feat is Joseph Biden, who, as it happens, was first elected to the Senate in that same year of ’72, when McGovern lost to Nixon. It’s an era so remote that back then you had to be a Soviet commissar to profit off Ukrainian gas, not just a clueless American consultant trading on Dad’s influence. A Biden nomination in 2020 would be as if, instead of finding its perfect torchbearer in 1960, the Democratic party had given the nod to a man whose Senate path had begun in 1912 and who had first sought a presidential nomination in 1928. Or as if Republicans in 1980 had offered another shot to Tom Dewey, who that year would have been just six months older than Biden is now. Yes, for good old Joe it comes to 48 years of faithful service to the party. But as Plouffe will tell you, it’s going to be tough to get those Millennials in “the ultimate Rainbow Coalition” doing their door-knocking and street-painting for an establishment nominee with that kind of mileage.  

Even so, as we’re often reminded in How to Beat Trump, it’s a “volatile” electorate, and you just never know. There has never been a fourth consecutive two-term presidency, second terms generally don’t go well, and when progressives vow massive turnout and organizational energy this year we needn’t doubt them. If so many Obama-to-Trump voters were possible, moreover, then who’s to say that given a dose or two of bad news for the economy there can be no such thing as the Obama-to-Trump-to-Warren voter — or, easier to picture, the Obama-to-Trump-to-Sanders voter? Swing voters and independents are not exactly defined by consistency of judgment, and it wouldn’t take many of them to again tip the scales where it matters. If we imagine a book titled “How to Reelect Trump,” a million-dollar idea that apparently no one thought of, it would caution against presumption of any kind, in any region or in any aspect of the effort. It might also advise a little more of Trump as he presents in State of the Union outings, casting a core conservative agenda in the kind of big, generous, classy themes he’ll need from the convention speech onward.

One illusion these two beat-Trump books relieve us of, in any case, is that the campaign of 2020 would be a far quieter affair without him. Even if its leading man were not such an uncontrollable, unconventional cat, all of the hysteria on the Democratic left is just a more riotous version of a show we would be watching anyway. Take the same set of signature issues and policies as this president’s, the same kind of court nominations, the same support of the same kind of people, and above all the same comic failure to play along with official pieties and euphemisms, and chaos would follow even if he had the style and demeanor of Calvin Coolidge. We’re supposed to blame Trump because liberals feel provoked, outraged, and traumatized? As if they ever need a reason.

This article appears as “The 2020 Show” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Matthew Scully is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. A former literary editor of National Review and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, he lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

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