We are now two weeks away from the 2018 midterms — which means that much of the political world is already focused on the 2020 presidential election.
Indeed, the moment has already come for Democratic presidential hopefuls to insert their names and profiles into the public imagination. Historically, that means they should be kissing babies, unveiling smart new ideas, and dazzling us with their statesmanlike personae.
Instead, many seem to be gearing up for that most miserable of competitions: racing President Trump to the bottom.
Don't do it, Democrats. Truly, it's not worth it.
These past few weeks have been like a slow-motion train wreck. First, we heard from Hillary Clinton, who explained how this isn't the time for civility towards Republicans. Next Eric Holder joined the fray, enthusing, "When they go low, we kick 'em." (Any chance Breitbart paid him to say that? Could he really be serving up these softballs for free?) Finally, we were treated to the kabuki theater of Elizabeth Warren's gene-test unveiling, in which she demonstrated that she lives in some bizarre alternate universe where this would actually count as a smackdown on the president. (It's all very strange, because Warren has generally seemed like one of the smart ones in her party.)
I'm cringing already just imagining what could be next.
Look, I understand that these past few years have been stressful. I know how soothing we all find it to assure ourselves that the only reason our team ever loses elections is because the other guys fight dirtier. I realize, too, that Trump just has this effect on people. He's got a real talent for inspiring us all to work a little harder, and stretch a little further, to realize the absolute worst versions of ourselves. Such a gifted motivator, this president of ours.
But it's time for liberals to snap out of it and get serious. Take a jog, hit up a yoga class, drink some yerba mate. Then sit down and write 100 times, "I will not try to be nastier than Donald Trump."
Trying to fight Trump on his own terms is a terrible idea. For one thing, it's a fool's errand. Admittedly, he's an awful person and an incompetent president. In the world of playground antics though, nobody trumps Trump. He doesn't hold his own particularly well against true tyrants (such as Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un), but he does possess that perfect playground-bully combination of total shamelessness and a malicious instinct for knowing where people will bleed. (Just ask Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and a host of others.) Many have tried to challenge him on this turf, and all have lost their lunch money. Playing straight man to Trump's buffoonery will likely cost you a few bad news cycles, but you'll reap all the benefits of not being a vindictive, juvenile jerk.
What's that worth nowadays? Not much, some will say, arguing that Hillary took the high road in 2016 and lost. Niceness may put you in line for a lifetime achievement award, but in politics people want unprincipled thugs who can go to the mattresses. To stand up to the scrappy Republicans, Democrats too will need to show some fight.
This argument is more emotionally satisfying than true. Granted, there are times when "going low" is a successful strategy. But that's not consistently the case. Beyond that, it's worth noticing that "nasty" wins really aren't the best kind, at least if the goal is to advance a substantive agenda. Trump illustrates this very nicely. Though he's soaked up obscene quantities of media attention, he is in a very real sense the least influential president in living memory. Personally he is colorful and volatile, a veritable walking personality disorder. Politically he is vapid and impotent, a mere placeholder in the world's most powerful political office. This isn't the kind of leadership that any party should want.
If this seems wrong to you, pull up these interactive charts from FiveThirtyEight, and compare Trump's approval and disapproval ratings to those of the past 12 presidents. He's not well liked overall, but the really remarkable thing is the stability of his numbers. Up through this week, the lines have been almost flat. Somewhere between 37 percent and 42 percent of the country approves of Trump; somewhere between 50 and 55 percent disapproves. Those numbers seem to hold no matter what he says or does. Other presidents' numbers move around, because voters are evaluating their job performance. Trump gets evaluated on his personality, like the celebrity entertainer that we all basically know him to be.
For any task requiring political prudence, skill, finesse, vision, consistency, or perseverance, Trump is fantastically unfit. He wins certain small battles with ease, but has no capacity for generalship. In consequence, two years in power have yielded a right-wing coalition that's still in total disarray. Agenda-wise the GOP is feckless and drifting, having addressed almost none of the real problems that plague our nation. Two years ago the signs all indicated that the country was frustrated with partisan bickering and eager for a new, transformative agenda. It's still waiting.
The Democrats have an amazing opportunity here, if they could just pull themselves together and take advantage. Transformative agendas can affect the nation for a long time, as we saw with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and the three-legged stool of Reaganite conservatism. As the party out of power in this profoundly feel-bad era, the left is ideally poised to seize forward momentum. Why squander that by throwing yourself into a demoralizing grudge match with the likes of Trump?
As a conservative, I don't have much interest in helping the left to succeed. At this point though, America just needs someone to break the cycle of potty-mouth politics. If Democrats start talking like grownups, maybe Republicans will be startled into following suit. Have we really not hit rock bottom yet? Think it over, progressives.