On Monday, Democrats unveiled an anti-corruption message meant to highlight the kinds of graft and self-dealing we’ve seen from Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers. The message echoes Democrats’ successful campaign in 2006, when they recaptured the House by running against George W. Bush and a host of GOP scandals in Congress. But the new message is still too focused on a broad “Washington” and not enough on the singular figure of Donald Trump.
Before Monday’s announcement, conventional wisdom had it that Democrats should spend less time talking about Trump. “We’re not going to see [continued success] if we spend our whole time bemoaning the fact that he’s there,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota at a conference organized by the Center for American Progress last week. “He’s there. And we have to present an alternative.” The general idea, suggested by Klobuchar and others, is that voters, already saturated by an unending stream of Trump news, are pining for a message that is not pegged to the polarizing president.
This is too clever for its own good. Trump is the central issue in American politics, and Democrats should spend more time on him, his administration, and the threat they pose to the country at large. In fact, Democrats can have the best of both worlds, offering their own vision for the country, while tying the president’s agenda to his scandals and his corruption, for a more fulsome portrait of the problems facing American democracy. Without the energy of anti-Trump activism, there is no Democratic path to a House majority. Far from moderating their rhetoric, Democrats should lean in to the fact that Trump and his policies are unpopular.
In Washington, Trump’s all-consuming presence has been a problem for Democrats who want to talk policy not the president. On the ground, though, Democratic candidates have ignored Trump to focus on ordinary, “kitchen table” issues. In Virginia last year, Ralph Northam ran on Medicaid; in Alabama, Doug Jones ran on children’s health care and rural investment; and in Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb ran on labor rights and protecting Social Security.
But ignoring Trump has a cost.
In the absence of a focused Democratic message against the president’s corruption and profound mismanagement, the public is left with GOP cheerleading (which has ramped up as Republicans tie themselves even closer to the president) and a media that still seeks a scrupulous “balance” between the two parties. Throw in the occasional show of bipartisanship—like Democratic votes for the president’s Cabinet and agency nominees—and a growing economy, and you’re left with a somewhat favorable environment for Trump, where his job approval has ticked up even as he deals with major scandals and a special counsel investigation.
The way to reverse this upswing is to bring the focus back to Trump. Democrats don’t have to obsess over Stormy Daniels or the Russia scandal; they can leave those stories to the press. Instead, they can raise the salience of corruption, from Trump, his Cabinet, and their Republican allies.
The material is endless. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been caught misusing taxpayer funds, taking gifts from lobbyists, and generally using his office as a platform for expensive perks and petty graft. Jared Kushner faces regular scrutiny for his business interests and financial entanglements, from attempted dealings with foreign governments to advantageous loans for the real estate company controlled by his family. And it’s hard to shake the appearance of outright pay for play from the president himself: Last week, Trump offered assistance to a Chinese telecommunications firm—despite its violation of U.S sanctions—following a massive $500 million investment in the Trump Organization from a Chinese state-owned company.
These controversies are a little esoteric, but it’s not hard to make them concrete: The self-enrichment we see from Trump and his White House extends to public policy, from upper-income tax cuts that directly enrich Trump and his heirs (as well as dozens of Republican lawmakers) to deregulation that benefits his donors and allies at the expense of ordinary Americans. And all of this runs counter to the president’s explicit promise to “drain the swamp.” What we see, instead, is a Washington mired in some of the most explicit corruption since the 19th century.
The goal of this anti-Trump messaging isn’t to persuade—it’s to mobilize. It also gives vulnerable red-state Democrats something to triangulate against; it’s easier to differentiate oneself from the national party when the latter takes a genuinely forceful, even strident, stance against the president. This, in essence, was the strategy in Alabama, where Doug Jones ran a traditional campaign on “bread and butter” issues while national media and national Democrats focused on the scandals and antics of his opponent, Roy Moore.
There’s still ground to cover and conflicts to resolve, but Democrats have the broad strokes of a governing agenda, centered on health care, wages, and a significant expansion of public services and guarantees. Let individual candidates focus on this. What the national party should do, instead, is turn its full attention to Trump, without reservation. November 2018 will be a referendum on this president the same way that November 2010 was a judgment on Barack Obama, and in the face of that, the intuitive choice—focus your fire on the unpopular president—is the right one.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus