How Democrats Can Defeat Trump on Policy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The family separation policy is bringing up once again a question for Democrats: How should they react to Republicans who break with President Donald Trump to some extent but fall short — perhaps far short — of actions they could take to defeat him?

Congressional Republicans have the capacity to defeat Trump on policy if they want to. As political scientist Matt Glassman put it:

For senators, it wouldn’t even take that kind of extreme action. With John McCain in Arizona, it’s a de facto 50-49 Senate, which means that a single Republican defection can doom any partisan effort. So when 13 Republicans wrote to the administration on Tuesday asking for an end to the policy without including an “or else” threat, it’s fair to say they weren’t doing everything they could to end something they themselves think needs to end. 

Of course Democrats (and, in this case, anyone who objects to what the administration is doing to children) have every right to push everyone who claims to agree to take more effective action. But I saw plenty of Democrats taking an all-or-nothing attitude: If Republicans aren’t willing to put their vote where their rhetoric is, they are really just allies of Trump, whatever they say. And I still think this is dead wrong, both as a bargaining posture and as a communications strategy. Democrats who follow this approach are basically placing their bet on the idea that Trump and his policies will be highly unpopular on their own, and that this opens up an opportunity to knock down other Republicans by placing them with Trump unless they fully ally themselves with Democrats. 

The better option is to do everything possible to portray Trump as an extreme outlier, opposed not only by Democrats but also by many or even most Republicans. That’s not going to convince Trump’s strongest supporters and the most partisan Republicans (two groups that overlap quite a bit). It may, however, be highly effective at convincing everyone else. Very few policies are inherently unpopular in any serious way because most citizens just don’t care very much about policy. If necessary, citizens will take their views from opinion leaders. And if what they see is almost everyone agreeing, they’ll (very sensibly!) conclude that the consensus is probably correct. Or, in this case, potentially a near-consensus.

Thanks to the nature of partisanship, it’s even possible that Democrats will do more damage to a partially dissenting senator by emphasizing his or her distance from Trump. It works like this: If voters are convinced by a bipartisan near-consensus that some Trump policy is terrible, they will be more likely to dislike Trump. They will then be less likely to support Republicans in the next election, either voting for Democrats as a way of punishing and constraining the president or just staying home. And because most voters care a lot more about the president than any other elected official and because partisanship is so strong, the impulse to punish the president is likely to override any specific positive thoughts voters may have gained about their Republican elected officials for standing up to Trump. 

As a bargaining approach? Many Republicans, for better or worse, are prepared to take moderate action against Trump but not go all out. Mocking them as lacking courage isn’t likely to change that. In fact, refusing to give positive rewards for partial opposition introduces perverse incentives — if the only action that will be rewarded is full and complete opposition to Trump, then the incentive for everyone not prepared to do that is to remain loyal. 

So while it’s certainly a good idea to push dissenting Republicans to go further, the way to do that is by giving them credit for what they’ve done. There’s even a bonus reason: Publicly praising a Republican’s opposition to the president (even if it’s only mild criticism, not backed up by the best available action) might draw Trump’s wrath, which might wind up leading to an even more complete break from the president. 

Bottom line: The family separation policy really is very unpopular. The best move for its opponents is to play up the opposition to it by highly visible people from both parties. And Democrats should remember that opposition to a same-party president is always going to be difficult. If the goal is to win policy victories, the best approach is to take whatever partial alliances are available rather than holding out for full support. 

2. John Sides at the Monkey Cage on the unusual unpopularity of the family separation policy.

3. Also at the Monkey Cage: Janelle Wong on Trump’s white evangelical support.

4. Robert Farley on why a “space force” is a really bad idea. True or not, we probably won’t find out: This is far more likely to be a future example of how weak presidents don’t get the things they want. 

5. Everyone (myself included) on Tuesday was writing about Trump as a negotiator. Dan Drezner on how Trump is really bad at it.

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O’Brien on why Trump’s style won’t lead to a solution

7. Aaron Blake on Trump holding hostages when he doesn’t even know what ransom he wants.

9. And “amoral trolling is not good politics”: Jamelle Bouie on the administration’s family separation policy.

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