Democrats Have Huge Advantages. Focusing on Trump Isn’t One of Them.

·5 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

It’s a nightmare scenario. You’re a competitive runner, running a huge race, one of the biggest. Against all odds, you pass your chief rival, and never look back. There’s nothing standing between you and the finish line.

But as the crowd roars and victory appears in sight, you trip on the very last hurdle and fall, forced to watch your rival coast to a victory you handed them.

Sure, it could all be a bad dream. But it can also be real, just as something very similar happened to a U.S. runner a few years ago.

This week, that lamentable scene embodied the Democratic Party.

Cheap Talk and Failed Bills Are Dems’ ‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Two months ago, it seemed that the midterms would be a washout for Democrats. But in the time since, the world has changed.

Negative economic indicators—chiefly gas prices and inflation—that have traditionally dictated electoral outcomes, stabilized and began to improve. July’s blockbuster jobs report doubled labor economists’ expectations. The Democratic-led Senate finally locked arms and walked in a straight line, passing the Inflation Reduction Act.

And nearly 20 years after Thomas Frank famously posed the question “What’s the matter with Kansas?”, the people there responded loud and clear—absolutely nothing—when they resoundingly voted to protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.

Democrats got our groove back, and just in time for the midterm elections. We were winning—and it felt good.

Then the FBI took a trip to Palm Beach.

And just like that, the news cycle was hijacked, the political momentum stalled, and the credibility of the Justice Department questioned. The incident stoked American skepticism and polarization, with some even threatening a civil war.

The FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence landed amidst an onslaught of press reports on a dizzying array of other investigations into the former president: the Manhattan district attorney, New York state’s attorney general and a Georgia grand jury—all led by Democratic elected officials. It was a perfect foil for Trump—a master manipulator who managed to convince nearly half the country without any evidence that an election was stolen—and set the stage for him to play victim to a “corrupt Democrat-run Department of Justice” villain.

Republicans closed ranks, Democrats were caught flat-footed, the American public demanded answers, and the DOJ botched its response.

Early polling says 49 percent of Americans believe the search was justified, 37 percent don't, and 13 percent don’t know what to think.

Some Democratic pundits claimed that was good news. It isn’t. It reinforces the American divide and raises issues for those in the middle. Focus groups made up of swing voters observed by The Washington Post this week confirm this.

Democrats, myself included, assume as a matter of faith that Attorney General Merrick Garland operated ethically. But most Americans had never heard of Garland before this episode, and the past several years have seen an FBI led by James Comey and a DOJ run by Bill Barr continually accused (rightly, in my opinion) of playing politics. The Democrats were the loudest in the condemnation of the DOJ being used as a political tool.

Ironically, in an effort to adhere to the highest possible apolitical standards governing the department, the DOJ sidelined itself and lost the public relations battle to Trump who spoke first and framed the issue.

The moment necessitated answers and transparency. The Justice Department’s silence allowed for conspiracy theories—which tend to snowball in extreme situations when explanations are in short supply—to take hold. The barrage of press leaks that filled the void only further confused the situation.

Your Grandkids Will Care About the Jan. 6 Hearings, Even if You Don’t

Garland’s Aug. 11 press conference and his move to unseal the search warrant was professional and compelling for some, but it was two days too late, and you can’t unring that bell. Not even the written inventory detailing the documents uncovered, including top secret/sensitive compartmented information, has satisfied a skeptical public. Questions remain.

Did they find mementos or missile codes? Were they declassified? Did Obama, Clinton or other past presidents take classified information with them when they left? And, by the way, why were they fumbling around Melania’s closet?

The search—which by all rational accounts was justified—cost the Department of Justice and the American people dearly, and the Democratic Party politically. The only person benefiting is Trump who, in the aftermath of the “raid” raised millions and gained in the polls.

There was collateral damage. Reps. Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney have done an extraordinary job using first-hand testimony and concrete evidence to lay the groundwork for the American people on what crimes were committed leading up to (and on) Jan. 6. The FBI’s search on Aug. 8 made their jobs harder, casting a longer political shadow over the upcoming hearings and any subsequent actions by the Department of Justice.

So what should Democrats do to regain their footing?

First, stop talking about Trump and focus on our record of results.

The only thing Democrats continuing to focus on Trump accomplishes is overshadowing our own party’s accomplishments. We cannot let Republicans hijack the conversation, muddy the waters and dictate the terms of engagement.

Second, refocus the conversation on the American agenda.

Draw the contrast between Democratic and Republican priorities. It’s about lowering gas prices (which have little to do with who is in the White House, but are, in fact, plummeting) and creating jobs (which under Democratic leadership are booming). We want to create rights while they want to take them away. Keep Republicans playing defense on issues that matter to Americans—starting by highlighting those who voted against the insulin price cap and against the Inflation Reduction Act, rightly labeling them as opponents of working class Americans of all parties.

Third, embrace the fight for reproductive rights without apology.

Dems Need to Stop Acting Like Victims and Swing Back

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should take the energy he’s built from finally being able to convince the often intransigent moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to actually support his own party’s political goals, and reach across the aisle to the moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

The victory in Kansas underscores the electoral potency of women’s rights. Democrats should put something on the table to ensure universal access to birth control. Force the up or down vote, make Republicans stand up and be counted. Democrats can either notch the win or put Republicans on the record in opposition to hugely popular policies.

The finish line is in sight—Democrats have to stay focused, keep our eye on the prize, and run hard to the tape.

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