The 2020 Democrats Lack Hindsight
They ignore reality and march in lockstep with their base. Did they learn anything from 2016?
Peggy Noonan’s take on the Dem debate. She is usually right.
I’ve received tens of thousands of letters and other communications from Trump supporters the past few years, some of which have sparked extended dialogues. Two I got after last week’s column struck me as pertinent to this moment, and they make insufficiently appreciated points.
A gentleman of early middle age in Kansas City wrote to say
he’d sat out the 2016 election because he was dissatisfied with both
parties. But now he’s for Donald Trump, and the reason “runs deeper
America’s elites in politics, media and the academy have grown oblivious to “the average Joe’s intense disgust” at being morally instructed and “preached to.”
“Every day, Americans are told of the
endless ways they are falling short. If we don’t show the ‘proper’ level
of understanding according to a talking head, then we are surely
racist. If we don’t embrace every sanitized PC talking point, then we
must be heartless. If we have the audacity to speak our mind, then we
are most definitely a bigot.” These accusations are relentless.
“We are jabbed like a boxer with no gloves on to defend us. And
we are fed up. We are tired of being told we aren’t good enough.” He
believes the American people are by nature kind and generous—“they would
give you the shirt off their back if you were in trouble”—and that “in
Donald Trump, voters found a massive sledgehammer that pulverizes the
ridiculous notion that Americans aren’t good enough.” Mr. Trump doesn’t
buy the guilt narrative.
“It’s surely not about the man at this point. It stopped being
about Trump long ago. It is about that counter-punch that has been
missing from our culture for far too long.”
The culture of accusation, he says, is breaking us apart.
A reader who grew up upper-middle-class in the South writes on
the politics of the situation. His second wife, also a Southerner, grew
up poor. She is a former waitress and bartender whose politics he
characterizes as “pragmatic liberal.” They watched Mr. Trump’s 2015
announcement together, and he said to her, “He doesn’t have a chance.”
She looked at him “with complete conviction” and said, “He’s going to
As the campaign progressed, she never wavered. At the end, with
the polls saying Hillary, “I asked my wife how she could be so certain
Trump was going to win.” He found her response “astute and telling.”
“She told me, ‘He speaks my language, and there’s a lot more of me than there is of you.’ ”
I have to say after a week of reading such letters that
emotionally this cycle feels like 2016 all over again. Various facts are
changed (no Mrs. Clinton) but the same basic dynamic pertains—the two
Americas talking past each other, the social and cultural resentments,
the great estrangement. It’s four years later but we’re re-enacting the
trauma of 2016.
And the Democrats again appear to be losing the thread.
They’ve spent the past few months giving the impression they
are in a kind of passionate lockstep with a part of their base, the
progressives, and detached from everyone else.
And in the debates they doubled down. Both nights had fizz. There was a lot of earnestness and different kinds of brightness.
But what Night One did was pick up the entire party and put it down outside the mainstream and apart from the center.
This is what the candidates said:
They are, functionally, in terms of the effects of their stands, for open borders.
They are in complete agreement with the abortion regime—no reservations or qualms, no sense of just or civilized limits.
They’re all in on identity politics. One candidate warned against denying federally funded abortions to “a trans female.”
Two said they would do away with all private health insurance.
Every party plays to its base in the primaries and attempts to
soften its stands in the general. But I’m wondering how the ultimate
nominee thinks he or she will walk this all back. It is too extreme for
America, and too extreme for the big parts of its old base that the
Democrats forgot in 2016.
It was as if they were saying, “Hi, middle-American people who
used to be Democrats and voted for Trump, we intend to alienate you
again. Go vote for that jerk, we don’t care.”
Another problem: America has a painful distance between rich
and poor, but it is hard to pound the “1%” hammer effectively in a
nation enjoying functional full employment. Our prosperity is
provisional and could leave tomorrow, but right now America’s feeling
“Grapes of Wrath” rhetoric resonates when people think they’re
in or entering a recession or depression. The debaters Wednesday night
looked like they were saying, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying
After these big facts, candidate-by-candidate analysis seems
secondary. Beto O’Rourke’s fatuous, self-actualizing journey makes the
Democrats look sillier than they have to. Elizabeth Warren was focused
and energetic, and her call to break up concentrations of power,
including big tech, was strong and timely. She made a terrible mistake
in holding to her intention to do away with private health insurance. An
estimated 180 million Americans have such policies. Why force potential
supporters to choose between her and their family’s insurance? Who does
she think is going to win that? Why put as the headline on your plan,
“This is what I’m going to take away from you”? Why would she gamble a
serious long-term candidacy on such a vow? It is insane.
If she is extremely lucky Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won’t endorse her soon and make it worse.
Bill de Blasio had the best moment in the first half-hour,
suggesting Democrats shouldn’t bicker about policy differences but
instead unite as progressives. He has that air of burly, happy
aggression that is the special province of idiots. Tulsi Gabbard broke
through when it became clear she was the only explicitly antiwar
candidate on the stage; this had the interesting effect of showing the
Night two was more raucous but similarly extreme. The first 15
minutes included higher taxes, free college and student-loan
forgiveness. Most candidates agreed on free health insurance for illegal
immigrants. They also appeared to believe that most or all U.S.
immigration law should be abolished.
The big dawgs did OK. If Kamala Harris was not a big dawg, she
is now. Joe Biden sort of held his own but seemed to flag. Bernie
Sanders seemed not as interesting as last cycle, more crotchety and
Eric Swalwell’s uncorking of a memory from when he was 6—ol’ Sen. Biden came to town and talked about passing the torch to younger leaders—was an attempt at slyness that so widely missed its mark, was so inelegant and obvious, that it was kind of fabulous. By the end of the night Mr. Swalwell had flamed out from sheer obnoxiousness.
The nonpolitician Marianne Williamson was delightfully unshy,
sincere and, until her daffy closing statement, sympathetic. Kirsten
Gillibrand yippily interrupted—“It’s my turn!”—and did herself no good.
It was an odd evening in that it was lively, spirited, at moments even soulful, and yet so detached from reality.