Why Democrats Need to Forget About 'Reaching Out'
Reporters who traveled to Melbourne, Florida, on Saturday for the first rally of President Trump's re-election campaign—and let's be honest, he deserved a break from all that presidenting he's had to do for four whole weeks—found something shocking. A bunch of people who waited on line to see Donald Trump, it turns out, like Donald Trump and think he's doing a great job.
This remarkable development was delivered in the form of breaking news, but we've also seen one story after another of late in which a journalist travels to some Trump stronghold to touch base with the people who voted for the president and reports back that they haven't abandoned him yet. Alongside those are think pieces telling Democrats that if they want to climb out of their pit of electoral despair, they need to start being nicer to people who voted for Trump; in this glorious article in Sunday's New York Times, for example, we hear from Trump voters complaining about how mean liberals are to them, including one young man lamenting how difficult things have gotten for him on Tinder. Apparently, single women are women are weirdly reluctant to hook up with men who supported a candidate who bragged about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. Go figure.
Nevertheless, "reaching out" to Trump voters seems on its face like sound advice. After all, Democrats lost, and if they had won over some of those voters, they would have won. So isn't that the simplest path to a different outcome next time around?
The answer is no. To understand why, we have to get a few things straight about both Trump voters themselves and the different kind of electorates the parties face in different election years.
Let's start with the fact that Hillary Clinton actually spent an extraordinary amount of time reaching out to Republicans. Although Clinton didn't make very many mistakes in 2016, this was one of the worst: She decided that instead of mounting a purely partisan attack on Trump, she would try to define him not as the distilled and rancid essence of Republicanism, but as outside of Republicanism, in the hopes that a significant number of Republicans would conclude that Trump was unacceptable and they could vote for Clinton and still consider themselves loyal to their party.
But it failed. According to exit polls, Trump got the votes of 88 percent of Republicans, nearly as well as the party's other recent nominees, and no worse than Clinton did among Democrats. Might that argument have succeeded for a different Democrat? Perhaps. But despite the endless profiles of working-class white Republicans, there are actually a number of different kinds of people who voted for Trump. Some were those die-hard fans, in their "Make America Great Again" hats and "Trump That Bitch" t-shirts. For some reason, these people, the ones who love Trump the most and hate Democrats the most, are the ones Democrats are most often instructed to reach out to.
Then there were the loyal Republicans, those who decided that whatever Trump's weaknesses, the most important thing was having a Republican in the White House who would fill the executive branch and the courts with Republican appointees and sign whatever bills the Republican Congress sent to him.
And last are those who essentially decided, "What the hell, let's try this." They didn't like the way things were going in their communities or their lives, and figured that unlike Clinton, Trump represented change. Some of them had even voted for Barack Obama before. Maybe they bought the ludicrous idea that Trump is a businessman so he knows how to "get things done," or maybe they wanted Washington to change in some way, or maybe they believed Trump when he said he'd take on the elites and bring terrific jobs pouring back into America. But one way or another, they decided to give him a shot.
If Democrats want to reach out to anyone on the other side, it's that group that can provide the most fruitful ground for grabbing some votes. But they don't need to do it yet.
That's because their immediate electoral task (granting that they have even more pressing policy tasks, like stopping the repeal of the Affordable Care Act) is preparing for the 2018 midterm elections. And what matters in a midterm election isn't who you've "reached out" to, it's how your own constituents are feeling.
Right now, the Democrats' constituents are feeling horrified, terrified, and generally pissed off. Which is just what produces the kind of midterm election they need.
That's because midterm elections are all about enthusiasm—which almost always means anger. It's the reason the president's party usually loses seats in midterm elections: because the people who are angry enough to increase their turnout are the ones who dislike the president. Turnout in recent midterms has been in the 30s, meaning that nearly two-thirds of voters decide to stay home when there's no presidential race. So it's all a question of which voters get to the polls.
That's why right now, if Democrats want to win in 2018, they need to highlight the things that will get their own voters as worked up about Trump as possible: his scary appointees, his retrograde executive actions, his constant lies, his self-dealing and corruption, and the tremendous damage he and Republicans in Congress are preparing to do. In other words, Democrats need to be as partisan as possible, and forget about "reaching out."
And what about those approachable Trump voters, the ones who took a chance on him even if they had some doubts? The most important time to talk to them will be after the midterms are over. There's a strong chance that by then, they'll begin to realize that Trump didn't fulfill the promises he made them. He didn't bring back all the well-paying (and unionized!) jobs mining coal and making steel. He didn't transform their communities back to the way they were decades ago. He didn't convince China to give us back our jobs (not that Americans want to do most of the jobs Chinese factory workers do). He didn't give us "so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning."
If that happens, some of those voters will choose the Democrat in 2020—once again to try something different—and some of them may just stay home. It will be essential to make the argument that has worked in the past, and that Clinton didn't emphasize as much as she should have, that for all the mayhem he creates Trump is working hard on behalf of moneyed interests, just like Republicans always do.
But in the meantime, Democrats need to encourage the kind of sustained passion, participation, and yes, anger that will give them a chance to win in 2018. Already there has been an organic outgrowth of grassroots energy on the left unlike anything we've seen in decades. Washington Democrats didn't create it, and there's only so much they can do to keep it going. But they can't forget that it creates the best hope they have of taking back a house of Congress next year, which would enable them to minimize the damage Trump does. The "reaching out" can wait.