US President Donald Trump is giving an unintentional gift to the burgeoning field of Democratic presidential candidates: He is teaching them how they can win.
Trump’s failure as president is that he hasn’t forged a governing party that can unite the country, pass legislation and address America’s problems. He has succeeded in creating an insurgency that has toppled the traditional Republican establishment and intimidated Republican Party members of Congress into stunned, appalled silence. But with the exception of the 2017 tax cut plan in which wealthier people reap the biggest payouts, he has failed utterly to enact significant domestic policies.
The border-wall tantrum and government shutdown show how Trump has squandered the opportunity that his populist campaign offered. If he had broadened his coalition -- using the “art of the deal” he touts but doesn’t seem to understand -- he would have presented a more formidable and lasting challenge to the Democratic Party.
But Trump’s insecure, all-or-nothing politics has prevented the compromises and horse-trading that might resolve festering problems and, forgive the phrase, make America great again. Instead, we have a paralyzed, dysfunctional government that even Trump enthusiasts must know is bad for our national health. Every additional day Trump sulks in the White House, his failure is more obvious.
The challenge for the Democrats is to avoid Trump’s blunder of creating a headline-grabbing insurgency and instead forge a broad governing coalition. That won’t be easy; governing is dull, whereas insurgent movements are sexy. They animate the “base” of true believers and tap the inchoate public anger at the status quo. But insurgencies are self-limiting; they focus inward rather than outward; they are about protesting rather than fixing.
The temptation for Democrats in the age of Trump is to create a mirror image of his dysfunctional party of rage. Democrats can be as entranced as the Republican Party by the latest bright, shiny object darting across the political sky. They, too, can mistake social-media energy for real political power.
The news media always finds new personalities or inflammatory comments irresistible. That’s why Trump has been so successful in manipulating the media. He conducts a daily circus of anti-elitist agitation. He drives wedges into every fissure of racial, gender or cultural division. He plays identity politics while pretending to oppose them.
This month’s bright, shiny Democrats, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, among others, are undeniably fun to watch. But do they have the skills -- or the desire -- to help build the spacious tent in which a governing party must operate? Do they have the self-discipline to avoid quick-hit headlines and forge real alliances?
The midterm elections showed how tired most voters have become of Trump‘s brand of divisive politics, in which antics to animate the “base” -- the relatively small segment of the electorate that is driven by ideological, racial or cultural convictions -- crowd out the process of building coalitions that can pass legislation.
Nancy Pelosi isn’t an ideal leader for a party that wants to reclaim working-class voters, but the value of having her as House speaker now is that she’s a disciplined, old-fashioned pol who knows how to keep the Democratic caucus focused and aligned. Newcomers such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (“impeach the mother----er”) will disrupt Pelosi’s agenda at their peril.
The Democrat who emerges atop the field will be the person who can convincingly demonstrate how he or she would make the instruments of government work again for the people. That starts with a message and a personality that a healthy majority of Americans can embrace. The ideal Democratic ticket would reach out to the broadest electorate; it would blend youth and experience, male and female, Anglo and Latino, black and white.
But the most important attribute for the Democratic presidential nominee will be an ability to beat Trump. The greatest weakness would be a candidate -- backed by an insurgency -- that skews the party so far left that it has trouble convincing independent voters in the center that the Democrats can put the country back together. Conservative voters are just as convinced that they face a politics of exclusion as are progressives. The escape is to rebuild a broad, tolerant, diverse middle.
The winning candidate will, almost by definition, create a new political alignment that begins to dissolve the cleavages that are tearing the country apart. What the country needs is a president who can convince most Americans to pull on the oars together again. Otherwise, this boat will remain dead in the water or, worse, keep rocking unsteadily until it eventually capsizes.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.
(Washington Post Writers Group)