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Anti-Trumpism Is the Democrats’ Greatest Liability

Why campaigning against the president is the wrong way to defeat Republicans in this year's midterm elections

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Jonathan Chait thinks he’s found President Donald Trump’s Achilles heel, and it’s not the Russia investigation or Stormy Daniels revelations. “The sheer breadth of direct self-enrichment Trump has unleashed in office defies the most cynical predictions,” Chait wrote in New York magazine’s latest cover story, noting that Trump “continues to hold on to his business empire and uses his power in office to direct profits its way.” But Trump is not alone, as “petty graft has sprung up across his administration,” Chait added. “Not since the Harding administration, and probably the Gilded Age, has the presidency conducted itself in so venal a fashion.”

Chait argues that this corruption is Trump’s greatest liability, and that the “best way” for Democrats’ to win in this year’s midterm elections “is to tell a very simple story. Trump represented himself as a rich man feared by the business elite. He had spent much of his life buying off politicians and exploiting the system, so he knew how the system worked and could exploit that knowledge on behalf of the people. In fact, his experiences with bribery opened his eyes to what further extortion might be possible. Trump was never looking to blow up the system. He was simply casing the joint.”

This case rests on an assumption that, in Chait’s words, “some kind of narrative focus is going to be necessary to frame the case against Trump.” But what if such focus isn’t necessary? What if Democrats shouldn’t campaign against Trump at all?

A Trump-centric approach might make sense in 2020, assuming he runs for reelection, but would be folly in this year’s midterms, when Trump is not on the ballot. The Democrats would be wiser to target the Republicans who control Congress, many of whom are on the ballot, and force them to defend an array of unpopular policies, notably on health care and taxes. To the extent that Trump factors into Democrats’ messaging at all, it could be in the GOP Congress’ complicity in his corruption, since they’ve abnegated their constitutional duty to check his abuses of power.

To campaign against Trump, rather than his party more broadly, runs the risk of making the election about a subject on which public opinion can’t be budged. Trump has had the flattest approval ratings of any president in almost a half century, according to a CNN analysis of Gallup’s weekly approval numbers. In FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of public opinion polls, Trump in the last year has never sunk below 36.4 percent nor risen above 42.4 percent. This narrow range suggests that opinion on Trump is baked in: Those who support the president aren’t abandoning him despite his mounting scandals, and those who oppose him aren’t reconsidering their position in light of, say, the stock market’s gains since he took office.

While very few Americans are changing their minds about Trump, they are open to changing their minds about other Republican politicians. The Democrats have performed well in recent elections, winning a governor’s race in Virginia and flipping a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama and a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania. In those contests, the Democratic nominees didn’t focus on Trump’s corruption, but core party concerns.

In Virginia, Ralph Northam challenged the Trump administration’s plans to cut federal funding to health care insurers, which he called “unconscionable as it is putting lives at risk”; a Public Policy Polling survey after his victory found that health care was a major factor in the election, with 67 percent of voters saying it was either the “most important” issue or a “very important” one. Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in Alabama not by running as a conservative, or even a Blue Dog Democrat, as The Washington Post’s David Weigel wrote.Instead, Jones ran against the Republican agenda in Congress, framing it as so extreme that a Democrat needed to head to Washington to offset it.” And Conor Lamb, who won in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points, ran on protecting entitlements from House Speaker Paul Ryan rather than opposition to Trump.

There’s every reason to think that issues like health care and taxes will remain salient to the public: A Kaiser Health poll of registered voters in January found that health care is the “most important issue for congressional candidates talk about during their upcoming campaigns.” Another poll that month, conducted by Hart Research and commissioned by a pro-Obamacare group, “shows that health care is a top priority for most voters going into the 2018 midterm election cycle, and that Republicans who have repeatedly tried but failed to kill Obamacare could suffer mightily because of that,” CNBC reported.

While Republicans may be penalized for their attacks on health care, they may not benefit from their biggest legislative achievement of Trump’s presidency. A Politico/Morning Consult poll in February found that more than half of registered voters didn’t notice a bump in their paychecks since the Republican tax cuts took effect, versus a quarter of respondents who did notice (24 percent weren’t sure). A CNBC poll last week returned similar results, though the Post’s Philip Bump noticed a partisan discrepancy: Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to report seeing an increase in their paychecks. “The bad news for Trump and his party, of course, is that they were depending on perceptions of fatter paychecks to boost their chances in November,” he wrote. “So far, only the people who were likely to vote for them anyway say they have that perception.”

Trump dominates the news cycle like no other president in recent memory, so it’s easy to assume that politics has to be Trump-centric. But the everyday issues that affect people, like health care and the economic well-being, remain crucial for mobilizing voters. And Trump won’t be around forever. A scandal-focused politics will be of no use once he’s gone and Democrats are governing again (whenever that may be). By contrast, an agenda to improve the health care system and create a more equitable society will keep the party focused for many election cycles to come.