After two years in opposition across all elected branches of US government, the Democratic party now controls the House of Representatives after achieving a slim majority in yesterday’s midterm election. While the peculiarities of non-parliamentary government have led to both sides claiming victory, attention will clearly be on the Democrats as for the first time, they will control a branch of the US government in the age of President Donald Trump. The Democrats squeaked by in the race for the House in spite of leading a campaign based not on ideas but based primarily if not exclusively on virulent opposition to Trump. Yet the modest gains made by the Democrats which are actually far less than that which most opposition parties typically gain in modern midterm elections indicate that the appetite among ordinary Americans for ‘Trump hating’ without substance is at best something of a political side dish rather than a main course.
When it comes to substance there is certainly a lot to oppose about Trump ranging from his anti-free trade policies to his needless hostility towards China, Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan and even some traditional US allies. But because Trump is very much a rogue in terms of American politics, there is also a lot to support from an objective standpoint whether it be his apparently constructive role in the Korean peace process, his pro-growth tax cuts and his surprisingly astute common touch.
And yet thus far, the Democrats seem to be attacking Trump’s qualities while ignoring his clear shortcomings. The Democrats did not campaign on a platform of free trade but on one which hinted at (and at times openly proclaimed) a movement to impeach Trump. The Democrats did not campaign on world peace as opposed to Trump style hostility but instead re-heated the Russian conspiracy theory that never carried much weight with American voters focused on their own problems rather than those of US-Russian relations. Lastly, the Democrats did not campaign for a kinder gentler America but for one where the differences in race, sex and religion became bones of contention rather than issues around which all Americans could unite based on a shared desire for prosperity rather than third world style civil strife.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote:
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak”.
The Democrats should know that Donald Trump’s personal appeal to much of middle America is as strong if not even stronger than hatred for Trump is fashionable in urban coastal cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Because of this, by forming an entire political platform based on the hatred of a man who remains very popular among millions of Americans, the Democrats are overplaying their modest moment of strength by acting far stronger than they are. With Democrats threatening to investigate Trump’s personal and business affairs rather than propose helpful measures to moderate Trump’s extremist trading and foreign policies, the Democrats have already blown their cover after a likely fleeting moment of electoral strength where by contrast instead of accusing the opposition of foul play, Trump is pretending like he had an earth-shattering victory even as his party experienced a moment of weakness by losing the House of Representatives.
Thus we see that while Trump is acting strong in a moment of weakness – much to his credit, the Democrats are exaggerating their newfound strength in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons. This is the same mistake the Republicans made in the 2000 election when they overestimated the popularity of the anti-Bill Clinton campaign waged by Republicans in the late 1990s. As a result, Republican candidate George W. Bush just barely won the 2000 election and even then his victory was highly controversial while his opponent Al Gore was generally considered an uninspiring and un-entertaining candidate while Bush at the time was said to have the common touch. Clearly such a Bush 2000 style victory is not the sort that any American party aims for.
With many Americans clearly undecided about long term party loyalties as was reflected in a Republican victory in the Senate and Democratic victory in the House, the Democrats won’t win the centre ground by focusing on an impeachment strategy rather than a strategy to offer genuinely moderate policies in a confident yet moderate tone.
Instead, the Democrats will likely retain their coastal bases who yesterday voted in full force, but they can only win back the centre ground by promoting moderate policies that are pro-trade, that support America’s international partners and have a realistic and diplomatic view on America’s alleged enemies and rivals. In acting contrite from a position of electoral strength, the Democrats could transform their party into America’s conscience just as sure as Donald Trump represents and always will represent America’s gut feelings about the wider world.
Instead, by vowing to become as hostile, loud and melodramatic as Trump, the Democrats merely offer an equal and opposite extreme but one that is largely devoid of any substance where at least Trump’s substance now comes from two jam-packed years of experience that before one knows it will be four years of experience.
While the ultra-liberal social policies of mainstream Democrats and the pseudo liberation theology of those who subscribe to the Bernie Sanders personality cult remain out of touch with Main Street USA, if the Democrats toned down the social rhetoric and amplified cohesive economic and foreign policies that expose Trump’s own cowboyish tendencies, then they might get somewhere.
Instead, the liberal John Waynes and Annie Oakleys of today’s Democratic party offer only rage at best and a horror show at worst. They have already squandered their moment of strength while Donald Trump has projected confidence in a moment of weakness. For this reason, Trump will likely win re-election in 2020.