Unity Will Be Required to Beat Trump, but It Won’t Be Bipartisan Unity

Republicans’ hyperpartisan Iran accusations blast one more smoking crater into the notion of common ground.

Seven candidates and four moderators pictured from an elevated position.
Democratic presidential candidates at the Dec. 19 debate in Los Angeles. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Republican Georgia Rep. Doug Collins apologized Friday for having said, earlier in the week, that Democrats are “in love with terrorists” and that they have grieved over the death of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani “more than they mourn our Gold Star families.” (Gold Star families are the families of U.S. veterans who have died in combat.) “I do not believe Democrats are in love with terrorists,” Collins now says.

Great; that’s good. But former South Carolina Gov. and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley hasn’t apologized for saying that “the only ones mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and Democrat presidential candidates.” And here are some of the many things Doug Collins hasn’t apologized for: spreading the conspiracy theory that national security officials changed whistleblower rules in order to allow a complaint about Donald Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine to go forward; insisting, despite a lack of evidence, that an official corruption investigation of the Biden family is justified, and that Joe Biden “is the only one who’s done a quid pro quo”; demanding that Nancy Pelosi be sanctioned under House rules for (correctly) describing Trump’s “go back to where they came from” tweet about four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen as racist; participating in the enormously wasteful and ultimately unsuccessful multiyear effort to blame Hillary Clinton for the deaths of Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

All of this is instructive context for the ongoing Democratic preoccupation with the concepts of unity and its evil twin divisiveness.

Primed by some of their leading presidential candidates, many Democrats have taken to hoping for a nominee who can create unity by winning over Republicans. Joe Biden says every few weeks that he believes Republicans in Congress will work with his administration after having a post-Trump “epiphany.” Pete Buttigieg has risen in Iowa polls while delivering a stump speech that paints a picture Americans coming together in the “tender moment” after Trump leaves office and often brings up his previous job as a mayor in “Mike Pence’s Indiana” to suggest that he’ll have crossover appeal. Amy Klobuchar is explicitly looking for support in Iowa counties where many people voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

On the flip side, voters, pundits, and rivals have often expressed concern that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will be insufficiently unifying because they criticize wealthy people in their speeches and hold progressive economic views that may alienate some segments of the public. (It was not hard to figure out who Klobuchar was contrasting herself with when she said at the September debate that her candidacy was targeted to people who feel “stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics” and are “tired of the noise and the nonsense.”)

Believing in the imminence of a truly national coming together, though, requires one to ignore the reactions that Haley, Collins, and other Republicans had to criticism of the Soleimani strike (and to ignore the rest of Collins’ public career). Democrats almost universally noted, in a ritual appeal to common American interests, that Soleimani was a “bad guy” who planned and ordered violence that killed civilians in a number of countries. Many then also observed that killing one specific bad guy from a country with which the United States is not formally at war by bombing a neutral country’s airport might end up causing more deaths than it prevents. Republicans responded not by disagreeing with their read on the strategic implications of the strike, but by suggesting that Democrats are sad that Soleimani is dead because they support his cause.

As my former colleague Osita Nwanevu observed, one notable attribute Haley and Collins share is that they are not Donald Trump. In fact, both are poised to be major parts of the post-Trump GOP: Haley is only 47 and seems to be setting herself up as a 2024 presidential candidate, and Collins, who is the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, may run for Georgia’s open Senate seat this fall. Their statements about Democratic support for terrorism were delivered before Trump had said anything on the subject and echoed common claims that were made about Barack Obama before Trump was an important part of the party.

These are the kinds of Republicans that the next Democratic president will be dealing with. They won’t be punished at the polls for their comments—it was a surprise that Collins apologized—because most Republican voters agree with them: As writer Matt O’Brien highlighted this week, a 2019 Pew poll found that 63 percent of Republican voters consider Democrats to be less patriotic than other Americans. (Only 19 percent of Democratic voters said Republicans are less patriotic than other Americans.) Forty-three percent of Republicans believe Obama is literally Muslim. Are these voters’ chosen representatives going to work with Joe Biden to pass gun control? Hahahahahahahaha! No, they are going to vote to impeach him, probably for Benghazi.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the Public Policy Polling organization released results of polls conducted in Arizona and Iowa, two 2020 tipping-point states that Trump won over Hillary Clinton by 3.5 and 10 points, respectively, but which have since seen Democrats flip congressional seats. Here’s how the group summarized its findings:

Trump’s position would be much, much worse if voters who don’t like him—or even just those voters who voted against him in 2016—end up unifying around the eventual Democratic nominee.

In Arizona more than 80% of the undecideds in every match up between Trump and the individual Democratic candidates disapproves of Trump. And the undecideds also voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by anywhere from 45-50 points. If you allocate the undecideds based on whether they approve of Trump or not, all of the Democrats move into leads ranging from 4-6 points. …

It’s a similar story in Iowa. Trump’s approval rating with the voters who are undecided ranges from 3 to 7%, and the undecided group voted for Clinton over Trump by an average of 31 points. If you allocate the undecideds based on Trump approval Buttigieg takes a 2 point lead and the other three Democrats all tie with Trump.

Winning in 2020 will require unity that the Democrats have not yet achieved. But it won’t be unity between their own moderates and mythical moderate Republicans; it’ll be between Democratic moderates, leftists, young Democrats, old Democrats, 2016 nonvoters, and independents who’ve always been put off by Trump. That, rather than a John Kasich VP nomination, is their winning coalition.

In that light, which current candidate is the best option? On paper, it’s Biden, who combines a reassuring, statesmanlike résumé with an Obama association that should help him with nonwhite and young people. But Biden has run a limited campaign that has persuaded basically no younger Democrats to support him. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have drawn significant numbers of women and working-class voters, respectively, into mini-coalitions with the younger lefty types who also support them, and they have economic proposals that should go over well in the Rust Belt. But they are also perceived by many voters as being too radical. Pete Buttigieg has no nonwhite support. Much of the time, Amy Klobuchar’s campaign seemingly only exists to demotivate progressives. Cory Booker is promising in the abstract: He’s the former mayor of a majority-black city but has won statewide in a state that’s 72 percent white, has a decent record of supporting progressive legislation but is good at charming donors and other business Democrats, and has been a lively, non-gaffe-committing presence at debates. He is also polling at 1.8 percent nationally.

In summary, congratulations to future president Tom Steyer.