<The following are edited comments that I shared with a friend on Facebook who asked conservative friends and family to have a dialog about Trump and his first week.>
Let me preface my comments. First, I didn’t support Trump, but I’m an optimist, and like Obama, Clinton and others said following the election, I think he deserves a chance.
Second, I don’t call myself conservative. In fact I try to avoid the use of labels. As I explained in my blog post “Less labels, more meeting of minds,” I don’t think they help debates or conversations. Labeling a person or policy as left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, introduces biases and barriers and does nothing to advance a discussion.
We all benefit when policies win on their merits rather than because of the person or party that is advancing them. Think about New Zealand or Australia, both economic dunces and comparatively unfree countries in the early 1980s. The wave of free market reforms that lifted huge numbers of their citizens out of poverty, raised productivity and wages across the board, and ended crushing restrictions on people’s economic liberty began in both countries with parties (at the risk of using a label!) on the left of the political spectrum. The policies they and their opposition had tried for decades had failed. The new governments made the case for the reforms, won the debates and got re-elected. When they found themselves out of office further down the road, the parties on the right of the political spectrum kept those policies in place and furthered the reforms.
Yes America is divided at the moment and some of Trump’s actions aren’t helping matters. So I get why many people, particularly those who didn’t vote for him, are worried. It’s a perfectly understandable reaction. But as I said, I’m an optimist. I also trust that America’s system of government, with its checks and balances, will prevent any of the extreme scenarios some people are worrying about from ever occurring. I further believe that Trump wants his presidency to be a success and for it to last two terms.
I agree that in order to end the divisions the goal should be to find common ground, and it seems to me that an important way to do that is to assume best intentions when engaging with others, particularly those you believe to have different views. It also seems to me that, in addition to having a debate about policy, it’s important to pick your battles. For those opposed to Trump, last week’s executive order on immigration was perfect because it generated opposition from across the political spectrum – I saw Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats all come out against various elements of it.
However, when acting attorney general Yates refused to let her lawyers defend it and was fired, I don’t think it served those opposing Trump well to get outraged about that. (It was a political move on her part, not a legal or principled one.) For people who don’t want Trump to serve that second term, they need to convince people who voted for him not to do so again. I believe this is going to come down to policy, not personality.
I don’t like Trump’s character at all. I’ve spoken out against his childish Twitter rants, his boorish behavior and more. Obviously there have been rallies, articles and other things too. But I question whether any of this is going to change the man.
From a strategic standpoint, it’s not clear to me that continuing to attack his character is going to deliver the results people who oppose Trump want, i.e. preventing him from implementing his agenda and winning a second term. Character just isn’t a top priority for voters. People who voted for him knew what they were getting, but did so anyway. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Think about Bill Clinton, who in office cheated on his wife by repeatedly taking advantage of an intern, and lied under oath. Republicans wasted a ton of resources trying to bring him down and Clinton ended up as popular as ever.
Certainly Trump’s and Clinton’s character flaws aren’t equivalent. But unless I’m not thinking of something that could change Trump or turn voters away from him (who already ignored his ugly character) I think the focus ought to be on getting Democrats’ policy portfolio in order.
Last year’s election was about whether the country wanted to continue with the direction of Obama’s policies or try something else. America chose the latter. To defeat Trump, Democrats need to propose policies that America decides are better than what Trump is offering. His immigration order was poorly crafted and terribly implemented, and a perfect opportunity for Democrats to start and win a debate. I think a lot of voters agreed with Democrats on that point. But getting outraged about Yates was overreach – arguing against her firing doesn’t help the cause of defeating Trump at all. It just serves to harden opinions on both sides.
I agree with the advice recently given by Democrat Ted Van Dyk (in addition to serving in the White House, he ran a policy outfit in the 1980s that laid the groundwork for a lot of Democrat policy in the 1990s):
[Our] resounding defeat [for the presidency and both houses of congress] cannot be blamed on FBI Director James Comey or, as some allege, racist or sexist impulses fanned by Republicans. Democrats lost because the Big Two issues — international and domestic security; and economic stability and well-being—were not being handled to voters’ satisfaction. So Americans took a risk by electing an inexperienced and largely undefined tough guy.
The path to Democratic recovery does not lie with ever-shriller denunciation of Republicans as alleged racists, enemies of women, or allies of the wealthy. Democrats must demonstrate ourselves capable of growing a fair economy and keeping the country safe. Today, given our party’s and candidates’ ties to big money and finance, we are not credible as populists or allies of the common man. Millions of voters think we are committed to our own political success but not necessarily to the national welfare.
Democrats should not worry about their current shortage of leaders. More will emerge. Better to ask: What are the country’s big problems? What are our plans to address those problems? How can we persuade a majority to support those proposals? There’s no time to waste: Another election—and a shot at redemption—will be along before we know it.
This means proposing alternative policies or ways to improve policies that Trump or Republicans are tabling. Over the past eight years Democrats have advanced policies in Congress or the Executive Branch, but in all the wrong ways. Obamacare wasn’t debated, it was rammed through on party lines, which is why, unlike the broadly popular reforms in New Zealand and Australia that were debated and won, the former president’s signature reform is in peril. Similarly, all of the executive orders and regulations he relied on in his second term involved no debate, which is why his legacy is at such risk.
Like Van Dyk, I’d like to see Democrats focusing more on policy and winning debates. That’s what’s going to bring people over to the party, defeat Trump and result in long-lasting change.