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On Running Against Trump

Dissecting Bret Stephens' (suspect) strategic advice to Democrats looking to take on Trump in 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks during his Make America Great Again Rally at the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31st, 2018, in Tampa, Florida.

President Donald Trump speaks during his Make America Great Again Rally at the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31st, 2018, in Tampa, Florida.

Last week, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens posted his "Rules for Beating Donald Trump." Stephens hits on a number of themes that we've seen elsewhere across the political spectrum, offering strategic advice to Democrats. Democrats would be wise to take most of them with several grains of salt.

Stephens' first rule: "Don't argue with sunshine." That is, the economy is growing fairly well right now, and it's not good for Democrats to pretend that it isn't, lest they be perceived as rooting against prosperity.

This seems like odd advice for someone running against Trump, who spent 2016 doing exactly that. He constantly talked down economic progress under the Obama administration. He said the unemployment rate was actually far above what federal data indicated. He claimed the crime rate was out of control despite it being at or near record lows. His pronouncements were wildly divorced from reality. That he won 46 percent of the popular vote suggests not that being unmoored from the truth is good, but that it's hardly an electoral death sentence. There are a number of reasons to suggest Democrats should avoid overplaying any economic concerns, but it's not clear that strategy is one of them.

Stephens' second rule: "Stop predicting imminent disaster." As he writes: "The story of the Trump presidency so far isn't catastrophe. It's corrosion—of our political institutions, civic morals, global relationships and democratic values."

But really, that depends on whom you ask. No, nukes aren't flying and the economy hasn't collapsed. People still go to school or work, put their money in banks, drive on paved roads, get electricity in their houses, etc. And yes, the corrosion of our institutions and values is a serious long-term problem.

On the other hand, thousands of children have been taken from their parents, and hundreds will never get back to them. Many of them have been sexually abused. For immigrants, that's a catastrophe, not corrosion. Democrats running in districts with large populations of vulnerable immigrants would be negligent and unwise to ignore this.

Stephens' third rule: "Stop obsessing about 2016." Stephens isn't unique here: a lot of conservatives claim that Democrats are obsessed with Trump's controversial 2016 election win. Democrats, the thinking goes, need to get over their loss.

Two points in response. First, a foreign adversarial power interfered with our 2016 election to advantage one candidate. That candidate won and is now trying to reduce punishments against that foreign power and to undermine efforts to prevent further foreign interference in elections. Regardless of whether this involves criminal activity, it warrants attention.

Second, this is simply not what Democratic candidates are discussing on the campaign trail. A Brookings Institution study that's tracking what Democratic candidates are addressing on their websites list health care, immigration, climate change, education, and taxes as the most-discussed issues. Irregularities in the 2016 election doesn't even make the list.

Stephens' fourth rule: "Ignore Trump's tweets."

Sure, there's a case to be made for why Trump should stop tweeting. But to ignore those tweets is to ignore the bulk of his policy generation process. Twitter is where Trump makes key personnel decisions, explains the details of secret international negotiations, reveals his preferences and prejudices, and demonstrates his evolving view of the law. He doesn't give press conferences; Twitter is how we learn about this president. To ignore his tweets isn't only unrealistic, it's foolish.

Stephens' fifth rule: "Beware the poisoned chalice." That is, even if Democrats do well in 2018, they might do poorly in 2020.

This is certainly true, although Democrats' 2020 fortunes have far more to do with events occurring that year than those occurring now.

Here's Stephens' sixth rule: 

People want leaders. Not ideologues. Not people whose life experiences have been so narrow that they've been able to maintain the purity of their youthful ideals. Not people whose principal contact with political life comes in the form of speeches and sound bites rather than decisions and responsibilities. Not people who think proving a point is tantamount to getting something done, or who mistake pragmatism and bipartisan compromise with selling out. There's a word for these sorts of people: governors.

There's nothing wrong with nominating an experienced, pragmatic governor to take on Trump, but there's also little evidence that such a candidate would do better than a senator, or a mayor, or even a political novice, especially after 2016. Here, as elsewhere, Stephens is using the familiar pundit device of "Me the people," claiming the people want what he happens to want. The advice isn't obviously bad, but nor is it rooted in anything other than his opinions. Take them as such.