Trump and the Siren Lure of Democratic Bragging Rights

Even the most humble, pure-of-heart and chaste Democrat cannot help but be a little giddy at the prospect of the Republican Party actually nominating Donald Trump. The weaker spirits among us are no doubt salivating in the hope that it happens. These are the natural feelings evoked by political combat when one’s opponent shoots himself in the foot, then the shin, then the elbow, then the eyeball, and so on. It is understandable to feel a little giddy, but instead of acting on these feelings, Democrats should begin to put them in the box with other inappropriate and unproductive emotions. Republican Nominee Donald Trump would not just be bad for the Republican Party. His nomination would also poison the entire political system for years after he has left the stage, if in fact he ever leaves the stage after earning that particular title. This will be bad for the country because it will make governing harder whoever wins elections. Democrats need to be more vocal about placing the good of the country over partisan bragging rights.

There is huge appeal in having those bragging rights. For the moment, let’s consider it a given that a Trump nomination would mean the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. There would be other major benefits.

One is that a Trump nomination would burnish Obama’s legacy. And I am not referring to conservative attempts,some sort-of persuasive and others less so, to saddle Obama with responsibility for Trump’s rise (of course, if Trump wins the presidency, that will be some indelible tar on Obama’s legacy). No, I am referring to the debate around how much Obama is to blame for the epic level of Washington disfunction he has presided over during his two terms. The Republican case is that Obama’s arrogance, aloofness, inexperience, lack of true bipartisan creativity, and extreme positions made it impossible for the Republicans to work with him. The Democrats claim that Obama bent over backwards–and foolishly so–to work across the aisle, but the Republicans were too extreme, too gerrymandered, too beholden to right-wing media, too stubborn and obstructionist for any “common sense, bipartisan” deals to be made.

Aside: I happen to believe that the Democrats have the stronger case on this one. In late 2008/early 2009, the GOP leaders in Congress made a tactical decision to oppose the president at every step, with both short term and long term goals in mind. In the short term, it would keep Republicans from giving their imprimatur to center-left policies and perhaps stopping those policies from becoming laws. At the very least, they could muddy  the waters so Obama’s initiatives would not become broadly popular. For the long term, they chose obstruction to rob Obama of the title of “transformational president” that he so desperately sought. It’s hard to remember this now at the end of the Obama era, but at the start of it there was a real sense of possibility, eliciting elation or terror depending on your party affiliation, that Obama’s face would end up on money one day. You can’t be a transformational president if the opposition cements the perspective that you only speak for half or less of the country.

It is worth noting that this debate rankles Democrats more than any other partisan tit-for-tat, as evident by the president himself giving entire speeches on the subject. It is one of those partisan debates that will never really be won by either side, where we just have to agree to disagree–like whether Reagan won the Cold War, or wether Clinton was responsible for 90’s prosperity, or whether Bush willfully cherry picked intelligence to manipulate the country into supporting the Iraq war. In these kinds of arguments, we can only feel the secure (smug?) sense of having won them by deploying a debate-ending talking point, by possessing the better mic-drop, smack-down slogan. For this particular debate, it would go like this:

Republican: Obama failed to deliver on his number one promise of bringing the country together; instead, he tore it apart.

Democrat: Obama tried desperately, but never had a chance. The party that nominated Donald Trump was never going to work with him.

A Trump nomination will hand the democrats the same argument the Israelis have used against the Palestinians: We wanted a peace process, but we never had a partner to negotiate with. When historians evaluate the Obama years, a Trump nomination would tip the scales in favor of the Democratic side of this debate.

Beyond this one issue, Nominee Trump would become a cudgel the Democrats would swing for years to come, their ultimate trump card (pun un… avoidable). When Republicans finally come around to proposing a specific replacement for Obamacare, Democrats will respond with,”But what about that time you nominated Trump?” When the GOP figures out policies that are geared to make successful outreach to minority communities… “But… Trump!” On and on, the Democrats will never let the Republicans forget that they nominated Trump.

Which is why I see peril for Democrats if Trump is nominated. It will foster bad habits in them, discourage a cooperative spirit even as Republicans will be emerging from this dark period ready to cooperate.

Trump’s nomination would prolong the healing that needs to happen inside the Republican Party. Democrats might not give a fig how long it takes for that healing to happen, but they should. A Trump nomination might mean Democrats keep “winning,” but what good is winning if you can’t govern afterward? Our federal system, and our pluralistic sprit, requires both sides to negotiate and compromise. Our system cannot function unless there are two healthy political parties giving voice to their respective slices of American life. The sooner the GOP is stable again, the sooner both parties abandon the idea of absolute domination over the other, the sooner we will begin to come together as a nation and solve the big problems on the horizon that will not be solved any other way. Maybe then we will be worthy of having a truly transformational president who speaks to and for most of us. And Congress… Congress will always suck, as the Founders intended.

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