Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2018

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OPINION:

Can Democrats campaign against the swamp?

Bret Stephens: Welcome back to columnizing, Gail. Your readers have really missed you.

As a fellow journalist and enemy of the people, do you have any updates about our schemes? For instance, has our advocacy of fluoridated water and the Rigged Witch Hunt borne fruit yet?

Gail Collins: Good to be back, Bret, thanks. Happy to return to the column — so many riches to choose from. The rally where the president claimed you needed an ID card to buy groceries? The tweet hours before he went to campaign for an embattled Republican in Ohio where he insulted local hero LeBron James? The extremely touchy legal position of poor Don Jr.? The time when ...

Never mind. Are you ready to move on to the elections? If you think it’s too early, we can discuss baseball.

Bret: Well, I’m not feeling too good about the Yankees after what they suffered at the hands of the Red Sox. And, by the way, I recently discovered that you really do need an ID at a grocery store — at least if you’re buying Kombucha.

Gail: I spent the weekend in Boston and you will possibly guess that the attitude there toward baseball is somewhat different. It was a great diversion. You know, over the past few years, watching politics, I’ve often told myself: “This is why God invented sports.”

Bret: So I guess that leaves us with politics. We still don’t know what will happen with the special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. It was too close to call and may not be decided for weeks. If the Democrat, Danny O’Connor, beats the Republican Troy Balderson in what was supposed to be a safe Republican district — and on which Republicans spent a ton of money — it would mean the tectonic plates are shifting again. And even if O’Connor doesn’t win, the fact that the race was close means Democrats are going to have a tailwind going into November.

Gail: As a Cincinnati native, I am comfortable with the idea that it’s all about Ohio. But we’ve got three months until the big Election Day — on which O’Connor and Balderson will be running again for the same seat, no matter who wins. Given the, um, lively nature of our current politics, I’ll bet we’ll have at least a dozen more crises, outrages and scandals to mull by then.

Bret: That said, my general thinking in recent weeks is that Republicans are in a stronger position than they seemed to be just a few months ago, when a big wave of House GOP retirements suggested opportunity for Democrats. That’s a function of four factors: a perception that Democrats are shifting to the left; the undeniable strength of the overall economy; a kind of maxing out of exhaustion with President Donald Trump’s behavior; and, of course, gerrymanders that have created structural advantages for Republicans.

Please tell me why I’m wrong.

Gail: The thought that’s helped keep me sane is that people basically don’t vote for either the candidate or the platform so much as just whether things are going well or things need a change. In 2016, they were ready for a change after eight years of the same president, and Hillary Clinton just never indicated how she’d be different. While Trump was, you know ...

If I’m right, this November people will vote on whether they like the way things are going, or they’re just tired of all this ... stuff.

So far, the economy doesn’t seem to have much of a punch for the Republicans and the tax cut thing is a total washout. The fact that it’s mainly just a big giveaway to the rich has sunk in, and if anything, it’s going to be a drag on the people who supported it.

Bret: The thing is, the number of people who think the country is going in the right direction — just over 40 percent, according to an average of polls — is as high as it’s been since Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012. More people (52.3 percent) still believe we’re on the wrong track, but the gap has been narrowing steadily for the past year or so. If that trend continues, there’s just not going to be the anticipated blue wave, even if Democrats succeed in taking the House.

A remark I heard from a savvy businessman seemed to sum up the thinking of at least part of the country: When he looks at the state of the country with the mute button on, he basically likes what he sees. It’s only when he un-mutes and has to listen to Trump that he’s alarmed. But I suspect a lot Americans have turned down the sound as they try to get on with their lives, so a lot of the screaming about Russiagate or the Helsinki fiasco or Scott Pruitt’s corruption just doesn’t get through and is probably counterproductive.

To win, Democrats need to spend a lot more time explaining what they are for, and how they’re going to achieve it, than simply pointing to what they’re against.

Gail: Policy! Issues! Great — maybe we’re coming to a disagreement! Can’t tell you how hard it is to have an argument with a smart conservative these days. I think Trump scares sensible Republicans even more than he scares me.

A lot of people will vote for Democrats just because they hate the way Donald Trump behaves, talks and tweets. But they’re also totally ready for a conversation on how to improve the health care system, how to protect Social Security from the predatory fingers of the Ayn Randians; how to direct more money to early education and how to make college more affordable.

The one Trump message I thought really resonated with good-hearted voters was “Drain the swamp.” Well the swamp is murkier than ever. Half of Washington seems to be lobbying for Ukraine or Turkey. The call for getting big, greedy special interests out of campaign donations is a surefire winner.

Bret: Now you’re talking. My point to my Democratic friends (no, really: I have a few) is that those subjects have to be first-and-foremost, not secondary points after lengthy declamations about Trump’s awfulness. Right now, the order is backward.

I also agree that the swampiness of the administration is a powerful issue for Democrats. Forget collusion; it’s the corruption, stupid. Back in the day, I wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal that played a role in calling attention to the stench of corruption emanating from Tom DeLay, who was then the Republican majority leader: That’s the year Democrats swept Congress. And a recent poll suggests that a majority of voters in 48 Republican-held districts think the GOP is more corrupt than the Democrats.

But again, to really carry the issue, Democrats need to do more than just note that the administration is corrupt. They have to offer an affirmative, credible and straightforward program for reducing political corruption systemwide.

Gail: If you talk with your Democratic friends over, say, a bottle of wine, you will hear a lot about the nefarious jerkiness of Trump — and you won’t mind, what with the wine and their being totally right. But if you listen to actual Democratic candidates running for Congress, they’re way more focused on issues, and in general pretty much in tune with the feelings of their constituents. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was speaking the language of the voters in the Bronx and Queens when she talked about democratic socialism — which is, by the way, not a very scary concept when you boil it down its essentials. But the people out there running for House seats in the Midwestern suburbs are pushing clean government and lower taxes for the middle class. I was looking at the website for a Democrat running in a conservative part of Cincinnati, and his big selling point seemed to be the way he “ended patronage and nepotism” in his current county office.

But about that swamp — if you’re going to drain it, you’ve got to limit the ability of rich special interests to donate huge chunks of money, to either party.

Bret: Glad we can partially disagree again. My concern about the swamp isn’t about money, which is an inevitable part of politics. It’s mainly about transparency and disclosure. And I fear that efforts to take money out of politics have tended to make the transparency and disclosure issues worse, not better.

Gail: Well, if we’re going to discuss transparency versus donation limits, we are definitely going to need that bottle of wine.

Bret: Change of subject: I was struck by Melania Trump’s very public support for LeBron James and the good work he does with at-risk youths in Ohio, just after her husband slammed him. And that was just after Ivanka Trump implicitly rebuked her dad by stating that the media is not, in fact, the enemy of the people. Are the women of the first family on the cusp of divorce and defection? I know it’s wishful thinking, but it definitely makes for good drama.

Gail: It does seem as if Melania is sending us some signals. I had a wide, wide range of imaginary scenarios about the future after Donald Trump got elected. But I did not manage to envision us at a point where we’d be saying: “Well yeah he’s totally crazy but at least Melania knows what she’s doing.”

Just goes to show: Even August can be an adventure.

Bret Stephens and Gail Collins are columnists for The New York Times.