Advice to Democrats: ‘Assume Nothing’

by John Lawrence

Throughout my four decades of work in the House of Representatives, I kept a small poster prominently displayed in my office. It advised simply: “Assume Nothing.” Still good advice.

Democrats might be excused for performing private celebratory dances after Donald Trump became the certain Republican nominee for President. Trump enters the general election campaign with huge negatives, a fragmented party, and a slew of quotes by and about him that cannot be described as anything but catastrophic to any other candidate.  It might not be enough, particularly since millions of Americans might believe the description also fits Hillary Clinton.

We have always had snake-oil charlatans maneuvering for political power — demagogues including Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and Huey Long.   Somehow the system managed to shake them out before they were able to reach the highest rungs of power. Many Democrats assume that some historical fail safe mechanism is still in working order.

Maybe, but don’t bet the White House on it. So a few words of advice to Democrats as we slide deeper into the muck of this Fall’s campaign.

  1. Assume nothing. There will be a temptation to conclude that Clinton has it in the bag.  Wrong.  Regardless of Trump’s buffoonery, Clinton has to sell herself and articulate clear policies to a skeptical electorate. Assume there will be unpredicted turns in the road; assume Trump will manage to cobble together a badly fragmented Republican Party highly motivated to defeat Clinton; and assume a serious Clinton blunder or two  (by Hillary, Bill, or both). It will not take much for the polls to narrow and when they do, the press will latch onto the “horse race” aspect of the campaign. Come October, the chances are it will look like a serious contest.
  2. Do not take Trump lightly, however much his antics invite you to do so. The new Quinnipiac poll showing razor thin races in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania may be slanted towards Trump (Quinnipiac polls lean right) but it suggests this election may not be a blow-out. Celebrity at Trump’s level – tabloids, reality TV, eponymous products – combined with his “outsider/not politics as usual” message has a distinct and powerful electoral value regardless how simplistic the message (or the candidate) may be. If there is any doubt, read up on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gov. Jesse Ventura, both elected in reliably Democratic states.
  3. Take the debates extremely seriously. Barack Obama suffered a totally avoidable self-inflicted wound when he flubbed the first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012. Similarly, Al Gore incomprehensibly lost debates to George W. Bush in 2000 because he believed the electorate would recognize that he was smarter and better informed. Like many experienced politicians, Clinton can get mired in the weeds, while Trump glibly ignores questions, hurls insults, and enunciates his top line themes that seem compelling to a not-to-be ignored segment of our country. Clinton cannot risk poor debate performances that elevate Trump’s standing simply for surviving on the stage with her. She needs to practice with an attack dog, not a bank of think tank experts, until she can reflexively recite taut, pithy and effective points and rejoinders. And, yes, she must avoid that stridency that can make her presentations unappealing if not alienating. She cannot take the high road: if he hits, she has to prove she cannot be bullied or intimidated, while not stooping to his juvenile level.
  4. Don’t bet that fear of Trump will produce huge turnouts that favor Clinton. The widespread ennui that has gripped the electorate could easily dampen voter participation among the very portions of the electorate that Clinton still needs to convince: youth, minorities and suburban women. A full out battle in the mud over the next six months could dispirit millions of exhausted and demoralized voters. Since Sanders will likely fight into June or even later, a very aggressive strategy is essential for enticing his dispirited supporters and ensuring their turnout. Trump’s base, while filled with infrequent voters, may well be energized to turn out in large numbers. Clinton needs to aggressively use surrogates – President Obama, celebrities, local officeholders and Bill Clinton – to get her core constituencies jazzed about her message and worried enough about Trump to turn out and vote.
  5. Devote substantial energy to the down-ballot races. The electoral catastrophe that may be awaiting Trump presents invaluable opportunities for Democrats at the congressional and state and local levels that are essential both for carrying out the Clinton policy agenda (including appointees), and also to regaining many of the governorships and the nearly 1,000 state legislative offices lost to the Republicans since 2009. Democrats need those victories desperately so that they go into the 2020-2022 reapportionment timetable with strong incumbents in office who can reverse the egregious gerrymandering that has cost Democrats a dozen – and probably many more — House seats. Clinton needs to devote sufficient time and resources to promoting down-ballot Democrats at the local Congressional district level so that if Trump trips up and 2016 becomes a Democratic wave year, as many Democrats are riding the curl as possible.