Will 2020 Be A Referendum On Trump?

Or as some asshole with a blog likes to put it, “People have to like this crap.” Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog notes that the 2020 election, unlike 2018, might not be all about Trump (boldface mine):

In an ideal world, a presidential election with no incumbent wouldn’t be a referendum on one candidate rather than the other. Sometimes, as in 2008, it’s a referendum on the previous president. That was a year when Democrats were fortunate: George W. Bush was so reviled, and John McCain had done so little to distance himself from Bush, that much of the public was voting against the status quo. The outcome that year is also a tribute to the Obama team’s campaign skills; the 2012 election was also a referendum on the incumbent Obama’s opponent, who was successfully (and accurately) portrayed as a rich elitist with no ability to feel the pain of ordinary citizens.

But far more presidential elections in recent years have been referendums on Democrats — even when the Democrat on the ballot isn’t in office. The 1988 election was a referendum on Mike Dukakis rather than the Reagan/Bush record. The 2004 election was a referendum on John Kerry, alleged Swift Boat liar. The 2000 election was a referendum on Al Gore and the sins ascribed to him (earth tones! lying about inventing the Internet!); oddly, after Bill Clinton’s polarizing presidency, that election wasn’t a referendum on the Big Dog.

It wasn’t a referendum on Clinton because Clinton was very popular as he left office, just as Barack Obama was popular in 2016. In both cases, the right-wing noise machine knew it had to make the election a referendum on the Democratic candidate rather than the sitting president (or the Republican candidate). In both cases, the mainstream media eagerly fell in line.

Is our media learning? Nope:

Warren’s presidential rollout hasn’t been upended, as far as Democratic voters are concerned; she’s meeting enthusiastic crowds and she’s being asked questions about issues, not about ancestry. But the media perception of her rollout is that it’s been upended, just as the media perception of Amy Klobuchar’s rollout is that she’s gravely wounded by reports of tyrannical behavior as a boss. Kamala Harris is in trouble because her record as a prosecutor wasn’t ideally progressive, and because her stated desire to get rid of private health insurance is assumed to be too frightening for the heartland.

Oh, and the whole party is doomed because ideas Democrats are discussing are believed to be too progressive. Politico headline: “Republicans Can’t Wait to Debate ‘Medicare for All.’” Axios headline: “Trump’s Lifeline: Democrats’ Socialism Surge.”

If we add to Steve M.’s excellent observation the disheartening reality of the 2016 election, that for too many voters, the awfulness of Il Trumpe was not enough to convince to show up and vote for Democrats (or at least not to vote for Trump), I think it’s very likely that 2020 will be less a referendum on Trump, and more of a referendum on whether Democrats are seen as a party that can make people’s lives better. If anti-bigotry were enough–and to be clear, that should be a red line (even if it isn’t)–then Trump wouldn’t be president. I’m not advocating for specific policies here, but to tie in something Corey Robin wrote, for Democrats to be successful they–and “they” is disproportionately the presidential candidate–must tell a story of who is to blame (Republicans and their backers), and how Democrats will fix things.

A political press corps focused on the vagaries of table etiquette could be a big problem.

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