Trump’s robust political standing came into view this past week, as he claimed vindication from his acquittal in his Senate trial despite damaging House testimony about his conduct with Ukraine — and set off on a path of retribution by ousting some officials who were witnesses. At the same time, his Gallup approval rating ticked up to 49 percent, its highest point yet.
The developments have generated convulsions of angst among Democrats, who watched their first-in-the-nation Iowa presidential caucuses conclude in a chaotic fiasco and deliver an inconclusive result. Many in the party are now sounding the alarm that denying Trump a second term could be far more difficult than they had calculated.
“We have a president who isn’t merely unconventional or challenging institutions and elites, or coloring outside the lines. He’s unmoored,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said. Yet, Coons added, he is “very aware” that Trump could win reelection “with these economic numbers at his back, all as millions of Americans grow numb to his behavior.”
Since Democratic presidential hopefuls began running through the starting gates a year ago, party activists have been consumed with the question of electability — specifically, which of the roughly two dozen initial candidates could best stack up against Trump. The result so far has been a form of paralysis, with no presumptive favorite in the race and each leading contender struggling to overcome vulnerabilities and erase doubts.
“The obsession with concocting the Frankenstein to take on Trump has confined us all,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a longtime party strategist who advised Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is not aligned with any candidate this time.
Palmieri spent the past couple of weeks on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire observing the candidates up close, including the president, who staged a large rally in Des Moines before the caucuses. She came away deeply concerned about her party as it grapples with how to counter a norm-shattering executive who relishes political combat.
“We are letting Trump drive our process and getting ourselves all tangled up in who might be the best person to foil him,” Palmieri said. “That became really clear to me just being in Iowa. The voters were so lost. They didn’t have any orientation, no grounding … They felt paralyzed by this choice.”
Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, a supporter of former vice president Joe Biden, agreed: “The party is torn. It’s polarized about what it wants to do. There is a world of difference between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden and no one really knows which way it’s going to go — and you have Pete Buttigieg, a talent, in the mix, and Mike Bloomberg rearing his head here before Super Tuesday.”
Many Democrats lament that they feel stuck in a cycle controlled by the president, with Trump shaping the contours of the race just as he did in 2016 with a blizzard of incendiary statements, lies and provocations — and, this time, a loyal Republican Party that cheers him at every turn.
“We spend too much time chasing whatever foolishness Trump throws out there and he’s masterful at it,” said Cornell Belcher, a veteran Democratic pollster. “This has got to be an election fundamentally about Democrats’ vision for bringing the country together and solving the big problems that confront us. And if a Democrat can do that, a Democrat can have a good chance of cobbling back together and even expanding the Obama coalition — and that will beat Trump.”
In his State of the Union address last Tuesday, Trump laid out what he sees as his road map to reelection.
Trump boasted of his stewardship of the economy under the theme a “great American comeback.” He threw red meat to his base, in the form of hard-line rhetoric on illegal immigration and policies on religious liberty, guns and charter schools. He made direct appeals to black voters who had shunned him in 2016 by touting his work on criminal justice reform and other issues.
Trump also orchestrated dazzling reality-show reveals, such as first lady Melania Trump awarding talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And the president’s speech featured his customary litany of false statements that outrage Democrats, such as casting himself as a guardian of health coverage for those with preexisting conditions, despite his administration’s repeated efforts to repeal and gut former president Barack Obama’s health-care law — all but daring the fact-checkers to blow their whistles.
Trump’s speech at the Capitol — and an hour-plus event Thursday in the East Room of the White House where he bragged and demeaned his opponents — has created more urgency than ever among some Democrats about calling out Trump or else risk having him define the terms of debate.
“We’ve got to be a little more dramatic about exposing him,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “You can’t just be anti-Trump alone. You’ve got to go at the truth.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has tried to play umpire, standing over the president’s shoulder at the conclusion of his State of the Union and ripping printed pages of his prepared text because, as she later told reporters, she considered it “a manifesto of mistruths.”
Many Democratic lawmakers celebrated Pelosi, their party’s de facto leader until a presumptive presidential nominee emerges, seeing her as a forceful guide at a turbulent crossroads.
“One of Trump’s real skills is that he’s a fighter, and if someone is going to punch you, punch back 10 times harder,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), a Pelosi ally, said. “I like a fighter and how she stands up to him. We’ve worked with him on a number of issues, but you can’t back down to a bully.”
Still, Trump’s address was a sobering moment for Democrats.
“The last 24 hours have been a big wake-up call for Democrats. The Iowa caucus was a debacle. Then Donald Trump produced a very strong, clinical speech that shows exactly what he thinks he needs to do to win,” Van Jones, chief executive of REFORM Alliance and a former Obama adviser, wrote Wednesday in an op-ed on CNN’s website.
Trump is making a deliberate effort to court minority voters. During last weekend’s Super Bowl, the president’s reelection campaign aired an ad during the game’s broadcast spotlighting the criminal justice law. The ad showed Alice Marie Johnson, a 64-year-old black woman from Mississippi who was freed after Trump commuted her prison sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. She is seen in the ad hugging her family and friends, thanking Trump and declaring, “Hallelujah!”
Trump and his campaign team are banking that this kind of messaging helps him overcome his history of making racist comments and questioning Obama’s love of country and credentials. He has a difficult road ahead. A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll of black voters showed that more than 8 in 10 say they believe Trump is “a racist,” and 9 in 10 say they disapprove of the president’s performance in office.
Republicans are eager to echo Trump as they try to chip into Democratic strongholds throughout the South and Midwest. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a Trump ally who is running for reelection this year, said Trump’s emphasis on criminal justice reform and stoking economic opportunity for minority communities “sure does” help his own Senate campaign in a state where black and Latino voters are pivotal.
“We’ve got [historically black colleges and universities], we’ve got criminal justice reform, we’ve got the economy going,” Perdue said, arguing that Trump has been the best president for the black community since Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s — a claim that, like many of Trump’s, infuriates Democrats.
Some Democratic leaders believe their party stands the best chance of defeating Trump with a nominee who can inspire a movement of new voters to register and cast ballots in November’s general election, as opposed to one focused on mobilizing existing voters.
“The other side will try to purge the heck out of existing voters, but if you flood the zone with new voters and arm them with information, they will come out,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president of Voto Latino. “If I were selling Nikes, I would not go into saturated markets, because how many people will buy that fifth pair of Nikes? I’d rather go into new markets where people might say, ‘Hey, I’d like to buy a pair of Nikes.’”
There are tensions, however, about who is best positioned to expand the party’s reach: a grass-roots liberal favorite like Sanders (I-Vt.) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); a new face like Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.; or a self-funder building a massive political machine like Bloomberg, the former New York mayor.
Biden’s weak performance in Iowa has caused particular concern among many of the party’s older donors and establishment figures since they have long thought the former vice president could stitch much of the Obama coalition back together and serve as a uniting force in a party divided between left and center.
Democrats believe they retook the House majority in 2018 by focusing on health care and other pocketbook issues in suburban districts, and Pelosi has tried to keep her party following that playbook. She tweeted last week that the three most important issues to Americans are “1) Health care, 2) Health care, 3) Health care.”
But there are sharp differences of opinion on that strategy within the party. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who withdrew from the presidential race last fall, said in an interview that Democrats should not stray from speaking in stark terms about Trump’s conduct and the stakes for the nation, even if polling suggests they concentrate on other issues.
“There is a school of thought that you shouldn’t talk about impeachment and instead talk about infrastructure and health care, as if they’re mutually exclusive,” O’Rourke said. “You can’t shy away from the most obvious threat to this country, and if you do, you accept Donald Trump and then we become complicit in it and we won’t win the next election.”
O’Rourke added, “Many are tempted to despair right now with the president being acquitted or this freak show of a presidency and the cult of personality that the Republican Party has become. But if you give into that, it’s over.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a party stalwart who has been involved with presidential campaigns in her state for decades, said Democrats must keep in mind that political dynamics can quickly change.
“I remember the 1992 campaign at this point when everybody was throwing up their hands, worried that we had ‘the seven dwarfs’ running against George H.W. Bush,” Shaheen recalled, nodding toward the then-incumbent president’s high approval ratings following the Gulf War.
“And then we won,” she said, when Bill Clinton beat Bush later that year.
Shaheen demurred when asked who is 2020’s version of Bill Clinton.
“We’ll just have to find out,” she said.