For generations it was held that to win the U.S. presidency, a candidate had to reach beyond his party’s ardent adherents and secure the majority of the vote of the American political center. In 1992, the Clinton Campaign famously declared its overriding focus: “The Economy, Stupid.” In recent days, I have heard former South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg intone: “To win the presidency, it’s not enough to tell people what you’re against. You have to tell them what you’re for.”
Sometimes … maxims are wrong. In 1980, Americans turned to the unnerving “Mad Bomber,” Ronald Reagan, because they had no confidence in President Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush and his strategist, Karl Rove, won in 2004 through a strategy of focusing almost exclusively on energizing and turning out Mr. Bush’s core supporters.
I have heard more than one pundit voice something that all Americans can agree upon: anyone that mounts a campaign for the presidency has a huge ego. What’s more, the Democratic candidates on the stage Wednesday night, aside from former New York, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have all been on the trail for at least a year, and their respective beliefs in themselves have undoubtedly been reinforced by the fact they have thus far survived in a brutal contest that has felled 15 or more other candidates. In his book, Marathon, Jules Witcover described a campaign for president: “It is a grueling, debilitating, and often dehumanizing ordeal ….” I suspect that their inner faiths now include a visceral feeling that because each has absorbed so much adversity, s/he deserves the presidency. These gut inclinations are now arguably augmented by envy and resentment toward Mr. Bloomberg, who has surpassed most of them in the national polls through profligate use of his essentially unlimited means. I fear that the debate will degenerate into a mud-slinging scrum that benefits only President Trump.
This week, Wall Street Journal Columnist Gerald Seib laid out the dichotomy between the respective theories of the campaigns of U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mr. Bloomberg:
“Mr. Sanders believes Democratic voters are ready to overthrow the system. Mr. Bloomberg thinks they merely want to overthrow President Trump….[T]he fact that Mr. Sanders is running against Mr. Trump is almost secondary; the Sanders view of society’s economic injustices is the same one he would be offering regardless of who was on the Republican line….Mr. Bloomberg touts [his positions on] health care … gun laws and battling climate change. But … [t]he animating argument is that Mr. Trump is dangerous … that beating Mr. Trump is way more important than ideological arguments.”
As anyone that reads these pages recognizes, my sentiments echo those attributed to Mr. Bloomberg. This year, it’s not the economy. The general perception – whether or not accurate – is that Mr. Trump’s economy is booming. Yet his approval rating is below 45%. In Wisconsin, his disapproval rating is 10 points higher than his approval rating despite a state unemployment rate of 3.3%. He is 12 points under water in Michigan despite an unemployment rate of 4.1%. He is 9 points under water in Iowa despite a state unemployment rate of 2.6%. He is at best even in the other swing states although all have unemployment rates below 5%.
Mr. Trump’s low approval rating is presumably not related to Americans’ perception – again, whether or not accurate – of our national health care system. A significant majority of the states that U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate have the highest percentages of uninsured will almost certainly be won by Mr. Trump in 2020.
Mr. Trump’s low approval rating is presumably not related to Americans’ perception – again, whether or not accurate – of his handling of foreign policy. He has been making good on his campaign pledge – whether or not wisely – to reduce the level of America’s foreign entanglements.
One could add to this list, but three is enough. Mr. Trump’s low approval rating is because … it’s him. A majority of Americans have at least tentatively concluded that Mr. Trump is unworthy of his office: that he has no regard for truth, with demonstrable indications of racism, sexism, and religious bigotry; that he seems an unstable, incompetent bully; that he relishes in stirring division and openly welcomes the assistance of foreign enemies for his own ends. They are concerned that he apparently considers himself unrestricted by all norms, rules, and laws. They are bothered by his evident contempt for the institutions and practices that have made us different from the rest of the world – an honest judicial system, a free press and free speech, respectful disagreement — and for those that act with honor, conviction, and principle – such as John McCain, Purple Heart Recipient Alexander Vindman, and Mitt Romney. They are troubled by his clear willingness to trample anything that gets in his way. They inherently know that it is wrong for an American President to use his power against a domestic political adversary, and they know he did. They inherently know that it is inappropriate for a President to financially profit from the responsibility that they have entrusted to him, and they know he does. They are uneasy with the notion that even if they are not in the crosshairs today – as he has focused his venom on his critics, brown immigrants, and Muslims – they could be tomorrow. They have come to realize that Mr. Trump is, in the words of another Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan: “A bad man, and half mad.” That he is, indeed … un-American.
So while I concede that no Democratic candidate can spend all of his or her time addressing the stain that Mr. Trump has placed on our national fabric, I nonetheless submit that in this campaign year, Mr. Buttigieg is wrong: the Democrats’ key to victory is not what they’re for, it’s what they’re against. It’s Donald Trump. If in tonight’s debate the candidates too pointedly attack each other, it will seem to me a counterproductive ego trip. If they aggressively attack Mr. Bloomberg, it will demonstrate almost criminal political incompetence: the only way that any Democrat will be able to counter Mr. Trump’s overwhelming financial advantage in the fall is through maintaining Mr. Bloomberg’s largesse. They should put aside individual ambition for the good of the nation.