What's Tony Thinking

Have Dem’s Taken the Bait?


Shortly after Donald Trump was elected in 2016 I read an article by an Italian cautioning Americans who oppose Trump to not get sucked into focusing too much on the man and how disgusting he is to you. This was based on the Italian experience of Silvio Berlusconi, another self-centered moral re-probate.

The Italian commentator warned Americans opposing Trump to not lose sight of critiquing this President’s actual policies and offering crisply articulated alternative proposals. If memory serves the Italian commentator said something on the order of, “It will be a huge temptation to fixate on the man and his outrages. Careful. That can be overdone.” He didn’t use these words, but he was warning you might find yourself preaching to the choir.

I thought of this warning as I read Peggy Noonan’s review of the DNC in the August 22 – 23 Wall St. Journal. Noonan is one of those Republicans I read to get perspective. She argued that the Democrats had gone all in on character but said nothing specific about policies. It’s not that she doesn’t think Trump is a hot mess as a person and a leader. She does. But she suspects that many people will hold their nose and vote for him unless they have a real clear sense of what a Biden administration would propose policy-wise and they are able to sell that.

Here’s a bit from her piece that not only makes the point about policy but carries an implicit warning about embracing blue-bubble, in-group jargon that doesn’t connect with people who don’t listen to NPR and read the New York Times.

“Do the Democrats understand how hunkered-down many people feel, psychologically and physically, after the past six months? If I asked this right now of a convention planner or participant I think they’d say, ‘Yes, people feel battered by systemic bias, inequality, and climate change.’ And I’d say no, ‘they’re afraid of foreclosures! They’re afraid of a second wave, no schools, more shutdowns, job losses and suddenly the supply lines break down this winter and there are food shortages.'”

It is easy, within the deep blue bubble that many of us occupy, to think 1) no one in their right mind could possibly vote for Trump after the last four years, and 2) that everyone is as concerned as you are about “systemic bias, inequality and climate change” or “racial justice and gender equity.” But the truth is that a fair number of people who cast a vote for Trump in 2020 may not be voting for him so much as against a Biden that is tugged left by Bernie or AOC, or by fears of urban mayhem, and other far-left agendas. We live in the era, Ezra Klein of Vox has pointed out, of “negative partisanship.” It’s not so much who we are “for” as who we are “against” that determines our vote.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got a definite feel for this when working for the Clinton campaign in Ohio for two weeks in 2016. Being against Clinton(s) was often much more decisive among voters than being for Trump. And I, honestly, was myself more motivated by being anti-Trump than pro-Hillary.

The second element — assuming that what people care about can be described in language like “systemic bias, inequality and climate change” as well as other progressive slogans — is also telling. It is so easy, again in progressive cities and blue bubbles, to come to think everyone is on-board with that language and those commitments.

It makes me think of denominational leaders of my United Church of Christ who can’t for the life of them seem to figure out why the world isn’t flocking to us. “It’s obvious,” they say, “that we are the church everyone really wants, if only they knew more about us.” As UCC President John Dorhauer likes to say, “The UCC is the world’s best kept secret.” It’s only a public relations problem. Given the UCC has shrunk to a fifth of the size it was at its founding sixty years ago, this certainty about our attractiveness takes some very powerful rose-colored lenses. But I digress.

I think Noonan is right. People want to know what a Biden administration will do about foreclosures, a second wave of the virus, schools, shutdowns, job losses and supply chains.

The Democrats seemed to get this in the 2018 mid-term elections, when they kept a laser focus on health-care. Don’t forget that lesson now. Yeah, Trump is appalling. Yes, character counts. But talking in non-in group, non-ideological ways about what you are going to do and how you’re going to do it is overlooked at our peril.

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