Washington can hardly keep up with the unprecedented pace at which Donald Trump’s presidency is cascading out of control. Ironically, the appointment last week of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election may slow White House hemorrhaging, taking pressure off GOP congressional leaders and their weak investigations and temporarily shoring up support for Trump on Capitol Hill.
For Democrats and independents concerned about the safety and well-being of the country, however, the priority must be getting Trump out of the White House as quickly as possible. He is simply too great a threat to America’s security and integrity, and his departure from power should take precedence over all other objectives.
To help accomplish this goal, Democrats must develop and deliver such powerful political and economic messages — and recruit enough strong candidates — that congressional Republicans feel compelled to abandon Trump for fear of losing their majority in 2018. Unlike a normal presidency, there is a genuine possibility that Trump, who is certain to be both perpetually dogged by scandal and tired of the “harder than I thought” stresses of the job, might resign before his term is completed. A strong Democratic Party could have a key role in hastening the process. If Republicans fear going into the 2018 midterms that Trump could cost them their seats, his GOP support will start to erode. If Trump does not leave voluntarily, Democratic capture of the House and perhaps even the Senate in 2018 increases the likelihood of successful impeachment proceedings.
But to be successful, the Democrats’ strategy cannot just be about demonizing Trump, as recent election returns have shown. Instead, Democrats must undertake three specific approaches to wining back the broader political and policy debate — and with it control of government.
First, they must return to the big tent, economic-focused but regionally diverse party messages of the Bill Clinton years.
Second, they need to recruit a deep bench of candidates in winnable southern, border, midwestern and mountain states — a process already made much easier by Trump’s continuing outrages.
Third, and perhaps least appreciated, Democrats must elevate more moderate messengers who can gain wide appeal nationally ahead of the midterms to nationalize that election and position the party for victory in the 2020 presidential race. In short, in this period of national upheaval caused by Trump and a rudderless Republican Party, Democrats must rise above simple partisanship and show they stand ready to do what’s best for the nation as a whole.
It is not at all clear that Democratic leaders understand this yet. At a recent meeting of top Democratic activists and funders organized by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, the agenda was dominated by liberal firebrands such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison. Moderate voices were barely heard. Big-ticket Democratic funders and party realists at all levels must park their ideological purity at the door until Trump is pushed off the stage.
Re-animating the big tent with an appealing economic message will be central to the success of this effort. It was precisely the lack of an overarching economic message that largely drove Hillary Clinton’s loss. Such messaging must match up with specific policy threats posed by the Trump agenda. It’s simply not enough to denounce an administration tax plan that gives trillions to the richest 1 percent and big corporations. Nor is it enough to condemn Republicans for holding infrastructure spending hostage to the GOP fetish for Obamacare repeal. Progressives must also expend their passion educating Americans about studies showing that the Democrats’ trillion-dollar infrastructure bill will create hundreds of thousands of good jobs for the very middle- and working-class Americans in key swing states and districts that Democrats must win to regain Congress.
Democrats should also put forward a far more aggressive job-creation-focused tax bill of their own, rather than simply be satisfied with predictably proposing further redistribution through the tax code. Broad economic growth that lifts all boats as happened during the Clinton presidency must be the central promise. Pushing these meat-and-potatoes economic themes above all else will be the best way to show independents and wavering moderates that the party of the people is living up to its name.
Recruiting candidates who share these values, especially in key swing districts of the Midwest, border states and Mountain West is vital. Yes, Republicans hold House seats in 23 districts that Clinton carried in 2016, and winning those seats is important. But to gain a true working majority in the House, Democrats need deeper gains that must involve retaking seats in purple states nationwide.
This means encouraging candidates to prioritize regionally important economic and cultural issues. For example, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states, Democrats should recognize that responsible shale gas development has provided critical jobs and economic development while also cutting emissions. Similarly, pro-life and pro-gun-rights Democrats should be encouraged to run in swing districts and especially in purple state Senate races.
Taking back the Senate will be a daunting task given that Democrats must defend 25 seats they hold, while only nine currently Republican seats are at stake 2018. But even if Democrats don’t get the wave election they’d need to pull that off, keeping GOP Senate gains to a minimum is crucial. It would help block implementation of the Trump agenda should he stay in office — and is key to reclaiming the upper chamber in 2020.
Finally, Democrats must put forward new, younger, more moderate voices that can appeal to the electorate and media nationally to animate the broadest spectrum of Democrats and independents aligned against Trump. This is not about criticizing or sidelining Warren, Bernie Sanders or Nancy Pelosi, who will have vital roles in getting the base to turn out, and who will continue to get media airtime. But Senate moderates such as Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly, Jon Tester, and Mark Warner, along with moderate Democratic Govs. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Steve Bullock of Montana, John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania must become more prominent faces of the party. Democrats should also reach out to and mobilize dozens of high profile business leaders who are appalled by Donald Trump and who have strong credibility with economically minded voters.
But Democrats must force the issue by returning to their fundamental playbook of the Bill Clinton era: job creation along with measured economic populism, being competitive in purple states, and cultivating a strong bench of national voices and presidential prospects. Otherwise, even in this time of national crisis, they may be shocked to learn that Trump’s scandals and outrages are not the political panacea they thought — and their nightmare could extend to 2020, and beyond.