In the aftermath of Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice, Democrats are feeling dejected. It seems the country is institutionally biased in favour of wealthy, well-connected men. The pleas of a woman who is “100% certain” she was assaulted carry little weight. It is tempting to give up the fight and go home.
But Kavanaugh’s confirmation can be a rallying cry for Democrats. The appointment of the most unpopular justice in history ought to galvanise opposition to Trump, resulting in high Democratic turnout in the midterms. However, there are several caveats to this. The Democrats are in serious danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Here’s what they ought to do to maximise their chances of success.
- Campaign against Kavanaugh’s partisanship, poor temperament and lack of sympathy for Ford, not the allegations themselves. If Democrats insist on Kavanaugh’s guilt, with slogans like “Believe women”, it makes them seem like they don’t believe in due process and innocent until proven guilty. They will play into the Republican conspiratorial notion of the allegations being orchestrated to thwart Kavanaugh’s nomination. They will also alienate male voters who instinctively oppose the notion that women ought to be believed over men in these sorts of cases. I think Democrats were right to vote against Kavanaugh, but they are close to overplaying their hand on this issue.
- Do not let voters forget about the Mueller investigation. Bring up Trump’s ties to Russia as frequently as possible. Playing the patriotism card could win over swing voters who share the Democrats’ suspicion of Russia, but don’t share their progressive discomfort with nationalism.
- Establish a consistent opposition to Trump’s trade war. Trump’s tariffs will cost the American consumer, while doing virtually nothing to change China’s economic policies. Democrats have the rare opportunity to be the low-tax party here. But by flirting with Trump-style protectionism and opposition to trade deals, progressive Democrats in particular could weaken the party’s critique of Trump’s trade policy in an attempt to win back Rust Belt voters. This would be a mistake; Democrats must make the working-class case for free trade.
- Oppose the Republican tax bill, without supporting high taxes per se. The Republican tax reforms are unpopular because they are rightly seen to favour the wealthy and major corporations. But that doesn’t mean most Americans support European levels of taxation. Democrats should pledge to reserve the individual income tax cuts. They should also raise corporation tax, though not to the 35% level it was before the reforms were passed. But good messaging is clear here- no one should doubt the Democrats’ commitment to keeping taxes low for ordinary people.
- Don’t run a purely negative campaign. Of course, the Trump administration ought to be critiqued. But Democrats must present a coherent and radical alternative if they are to succeed. Policies like moving some federal agencies away from DC to give struggling areas more high-paying jobs, a fund to help areas affected by deindustrialisation, or pressuring cities to loosen planning regulations to get more affordable houses built- are all popular and don’t cost all that much money. Democrats need to seem exciting and fresh. An attack of Trump from the position of the status quo will be frowned upon.
- Play down expectations. Many Democrats are eagerly anticipating winning states like Texas and Georgia, despite those places being generally conservative. While the aim should be to win them, if Democrats fail, Republicans will portray that as a victory, even if there is a swing towards the Democrats in those places. Failing to achieve high expectations will only fuel Trump’s ego.
- Don’t fuel America’s worsening hyper-partisanship. This is more an issue of morality than electability. I concede that bitter and hyperbolic attacks on Republicans could boost Democratic enthusiasm. But it’s nevertheless the wrong thing to do. Democrats and Republicans increasingly see each other as mortal enemies. The proportion of people to say they would be happy for their children to marry someone in a different political party has fallen considerably. This makes good governance and establishing a broad consensus almost impossible. While Republicans have often demonised Democrats, accusing them of wanting to undermine the country, Democrats should not fall to that level. You cannot win over your opponents by insulting them.