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Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

My latest column at The Week is a warning to the Democrats not to be tempted to pursue a “do-over” of the 2016 election. Restorationism, I point, is not what brought the Republicans roaring back in 2010 — or 1994, or 1980:

TARP was originally organized by Bush’s Treasury Department, and the Federal Reserve began its extraordinary easing of monetary policy in the Bush years as well — and was led throughout the crisis period by a Bush-appointed chairman.

The Tea Party seized on these facts rather than hiding them. Far from defending the Bush administration or the McCain campaign and calling Obama to task for changing direction, it eagerly condemned them both for their betrayal of conservative principles. In this way, the Tea Party seized the mantle of change. Obama and the Democrats had their response to the crisis — and through the Tea Party, the Republicans transformed from being the party that caused the crisis to the party that advocated a very different response.

The Gingrich Republicans did pretty much the same thing back in their day. The elder President Bush sparked a revolt on his right flank for having violated his pledge not to raise taxes. Gingrich was one of the leaders of the Republican opposition to that move, and he rode that opposition all the way to the speakership. Then, President Clinton — elected with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than President Trump — passed his own tax hike and spending initiatives, and Gingrich swung into furious opposition. With the Contract with America, Republicans went from being the party to blame for the savings and loan crisis, and the huge deficits and tax hikes that followed, to being a party with something new to say — a different response to the budget and tax situation than the one proposed by the Clinton administration.

The same was true of the Reagan revolution in 1980. Between high inflation and high unemployment at home, and the hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan abroad, Reagan had plenty to run against. But he ran against way more than that. In the primaries and in the general election, he ran not only against Jimmy Carter’s failed tenure, but against Gerald Ford’s as well — a replay of his 1976 challenge to the sitting Republican president. He wasn’t a restorationist. He was a revolutionary. As, in his opera buffa way, is Trump himself, having capitalized on the Tea Party’s anti-establishment energy and channeled it towards his own indictment of America’s governing elite, the GOP elite very much included.

Can the Democrats follow that playbook? Only if they are willing to slight a leadership to which they still have a lot of understandable loyalty.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for all its arrogance and ineptitude, substantively represented the views of mainstream Democrats pretty well. And Obama left office not only very popular on a personal level, but with a growing percentage of Americans supporting his core policy initiatives. There’s a lot of loyalty there, and its reflected in the elegiac tone of much of the commentary on the end of the Obama years, and the continued popularity of “I’m With Her” on Saturday’s signs.

But Democrats would be well advised to abjure these sentiments when they think about making a case to the American people over the next two years. It’s a positive for Democrats that they don’t need to escape the memory of a deeply unpopular ex-president. But it’s also a negative if it keeps them from charting a new course, or separating themselves from the aspects of their time in office that enough Americans were frustrated with to take the extraordinary risk of electing Trump.

Those Americans are the ones Democrats need to be loyal to, not to their own leadership. That may mean occasionally agreeing with and even praising Trump — as Bernie Sanders did when the president withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If you stand for something, you need to stand for it even when your opponents agree with you — and doing so in no way stops you from fighting them on other fronts. Gingrich reached across the aisle to pass NAFTA and welfare reform, both priorities of his that congressional Democrats opposed. Neither stopped him from shutting down the government, nor his successors from pursuing impeachment.

I remain highly confident that, in substantive terms, the Trump administration is going to prove a disaster, partly because of its massive internal contradictions and partly because of the exceptionally poor character of Trump himself.  But as Damon Linker points out in his own column this morning, it could still prove politically potent:

A slew of sophisticated commentators during the 1970s and ’80s, from Daniel Bell to Michael Harrington, dismissed Reaganism as hopelessly contradictory. Yet it gained power and transformed the boundaries of political possibility for the past 36 years, with even Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama hemmed in by the limits it placed on policy debate.

What if Trump’s syncretic position — its combination of supply-side tax cuts and arm-twisting of corporate big wigs over outsourcing, its promises to gut regulations while also making “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs” with an eye to what benefits “American workers and American families” — actually catches fire among voters?

Democrats have dismissed the possibility because it’s very much in their interest to do so — and because many of them genuinely believe that the economic and political consequences of that populist-plutocratic amalgam will be transparently disastrous. Trump’s most thoughtful critics on the right, meanwhile, tend to assume both that a combination of different libertarian and nationalist policies would be preferable to the ones that Trump has emphasized, and that Trump is personally so unstable and flagrantly unsuited to the office he now holds that his whole presidency is likely to spiral very quickly into dysfunction and even chaos. Others emphasize that, however appealing Trump’s pitch might be to a certain segment of voters, he is just one man — and one who (unlike Reagan) has failed to inspire a movement of ideological compatriots to press his agenda in Congress.

I agree with elements of each critique and have assumed up until now that one way or the other the Trump administration would skirt serious danger and end up an incontestable failure. I still think that’s the most likely scenario. But one event from these opening days of the Trump presidency has shaken my confidence.

That was the meeting he held on his first Monday in office with the leadership of several hard-hat unions. Most of the unions continued their longstanding support for Democratic candidates by endorsing Hillary Clinton in the recent election. Yet there they were, invited to a Republican White House right from the start, sitting down with the president of the United States (and several senior White House officials), who promised to “get them working again.” In response, the union leaders offered praise for the new president, while noting that during the eight years of the Obama presidency they had never been invited to a similar meeting.

Could Trump decisively flip the unions and their voters to the GOP? He already won far more of their votes in 2016 than Mitt Romney did four years earlier. If that trend continues and accelerates, the rust-belt states that gave Trump his microscopically narrow win this time around could end up firmly in the Republican column, forming an imposing new electoral Red Wall in the upper Midwest. If that begins to happen, Paul Ryan and other Reaganite holdouts may yet become latter-day converts to the Trumpian populist cause.

Linker thinks that’s the less-likely outcome — and I agree. But it’s not impossible — and it could happen even if the Trump years aren’t particularly good for America.

Remember: George W. Bush ran for reelection after presiding over a weak recovery from a recession, after failing to prevent the largest terrorist attack in American history (and failing to capture or kill the men most responsible for that attack), and after launching an unnecessary and unrelated war of choice that was, in 2004, already clearly not going well. But he won.

One of the reasons that he won is that he successfully pushed through policies that, even if they were not designed to promote the general welfare, demonstrated his loyalty to crucial constituency groups. His 2002 steel tariffs were a small-bore example of such a policy. They failed to achieve their largest objectives, but they provided a clear contrast with the Clinton administration’s opposition to protectionism. Voters in West Virginia (and western Pennsylvania) remembered whose side he was on.

A larger-scale example of such a policy was Medicare Part D. The law was designed very much with pharmaceutical interests in mind, and as such represented a large giveaway from the public as a whole, who had to pay for the law, to the retirees and drug companies who reaped the benefits. It was opposed by some principled Republicans for those reasons — but it enabled Bush to run for reelection as the man who cared about seniors, a crucial portion of his electoral coalition.

It’s not hard to imagine Trump putting together policies of a similar character, and getting them through a highly partisan Congress. It’s not impossible to imagine a 2020 environment where growth has remained sluggish while the deficit has ballooned, inflation has ticked up and the dollar has fallen; where Texas has lost jobs because of uncertainty about NAFTA and California and New York are suffering from a housing hiccup; where the Middle East continues to smolder and terrorism continues to rock Europe, while China is quietly asserting a position of leadership in global circles — and yet, the wealthy are feeling flush, manufacturing job growth is positive in crucial Midwestern states, and a governing majority of Americans are convinced that while the world is going to hell, at least Trump is putting America first.

The Democrats need to plan to win in that environment. They need to think about the future — and they need to sell the future to those Americans who, as of 2016, believe that there is no place for them in it.


about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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