Nicholas Goldberg: Focusing on Trump may be a bad strategy for Democrats. But he's the real issue
The conventional wisdom after the tight gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey — and as the congressional midterm contests get underway in earnest — is that Democratic candidates who focus their upcoming campaigns on attacking Donald Trump are unlikely to be elected.
Instead, they have to talk about the issues that actually matter to voters. High gas prices, say, and climbing inflation. Or old standbys like decent schools and usable roads. Or the persistence of COVID-19.
Waving one’s arms and screaming about Jan. 6 and the zombie-like return of the fearsome orange-haired ogre simply will not be sufficient.
“Yelling ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ when Mr. Trump is not on the ballot or in office is no longer a viable campaign strategy,” wrote veteran Democratic pollster Mark Penn and former Democratic politician Andrew Stein in an op-ed last week in the New York Times.
“Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats tried to run against Trump in Virginia, but their strategy backfired,” tweeted an exultant Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.
This discussion of campaign tactics matters. A lot. The Senate is currently controlled, just barely, by Democrats, thanks only to the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. If even one seat were to flip to the Republicans in November, it would shift the balance.
In the House, there are eight more Democrats than Republicans, but since World War II the president’s party has lost more than two dozen seats on average during midterm elections.
Control of Congress is absolutely necessary if President Biden is to achieve even a fraction of his agenda. Losing even one house would likely lead to complete legislative paralysis.
So winning these coming campaigns is tremendously important for Democrats, and I’m in no position to second-guess the strategists. If they say don't make Trump the focus, they may well be right.
But forgive me if I take a moment to raise a scream of agony to the heavens: What in the world is wrong with the voters?
Why isn’t Trump the issue?
Isn’t the anti-Trump argument really the only argument that matters? At this particular moment in American history, doesn’t almost every other issue pale in comparison? Republican and Democratic voters alike ought to recognize the dangers that face the country if this dishonest, anti-democratic, twice-impeached demagogue returns to power. They should demand that the midterm candidates for House and Senate declare whether they’re with the former president or, as they should be, against him.
Republican officeholders who have sold their souls by cravenly capitulating to Trump and his falsehoods about the 2020 election should be voted out of Congress. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and his ilk have shown themselves to be dangerous and unprincipled, and they should pay for their irresponsibility.
I know there are plenty of Republicans who think that people like me are still in the grip of some sort of Trump derangement syndrome. But in my view, a second Trump term in office would be catastrophic for the United States, its reputation, its moral standing, its democratic process and its peace and security — not to mention for the future of the climate and the planet.
The mere possibility of a Trump restoration in 2024 should have voters of all parties leaping from their couches as if stung and running for the polls to vote no.
Sure, issues matter. It would be highly presumptuous of me to suggest voters shouldn’t be concerned about taxes and inflation and schools and all the other matters that make life easier or harder to live day-to-day. Democratic incumbents of course must persuade voters that they’re making progress fulfilling the promises they made during the last campaign.
But honestly, with the exception of climate change, it’s hard to think of any single issue that matters as much as the possibility of Trump’s return. And empowering his sycophants and enablers in the midterm empowers Trump himself two years later.
When I think that 74 million people voted for Trump in November 2020 even after seeing how he behaved in his first four-year term, I worry for the soul of the nation. Even more distressing is that so many continued to support him after he demonstrated his utter disdain for fair elections, democratic institutions and the rule of law after he lost the race.
Today, most Republicans say they believe Trump actually won the 2020 election, as he keeps claiming. And 44% of Republicans want him to run again in 2024.
I’ve lived under other Republican presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. I disagreed with them, often strongly, but I didn’t dread them. I didn’t believe they would put their own desire for power over the rule of law or the good of the country.
Well, maybe Nixon. But even he wasn’t as reprehensible as Trump.
Today, it’s possible that voters have put Trump out of their minds, and are focused on gas prices and the like. If so, by all means Democratic candidates need to speak to those subjects in their campaigns. If the price of defeating Trumpism is ignoring Trump, I can live with that.
But I’m under no illusions: He’s the real threat behind the scenes, and he must not be allowed to return to office. That struggle begins now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.