Donald Trump is, by all measures, going to have a very difficult time winning a second term next November. He lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost 3 million votes. He’s a deeply polarizing figure whose job approval ratings have never crested 50% in his presidency to date. He could face a serious primary challenge.
And yet, in the last two weeks, Democrats have handed Trump two issues on a golden platter – and it’s already clear he is seizing on them. Bigly.
1) In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Reproductive Health Act, which, among other things, takes the word “abortion” out of the state’s criminal code, ensures that doctors and clinics who provide abortions can’t be charged and codifies that abortions can be performed after 24 weeks if the fetus is not viable or the mother’s health is at serious risk. Conservative critics – in New York and elsewhere – painted the law as overbroad and effectively legalizing abortion not only in the third trimester, but all the way to birth.
Just as that was happening, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) went on a local radio station and tried to explain his support for legislation that would have loosened current strictures on late-term abortions in the commonwealth.
Here’s how Northam said (and yes, this came before the photo of him – or not – in blackface or KKK robes went viral):
“[Third trimester abortions are] done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s nonviable. So in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Republicans immediately reacted, insisting that Northam sounded like he was advocating for infanticide. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, insisted that what he was describing was only in instances of non-viable pregnancies or “severe fetal abnormalities,” but the damage was done.
“This is going to lift up the whole pro-life movement like maybe it’s never been lifted up before,” Trump told the Daily Caller in an interview. “The pro-life movement is very much a 50-50, it’s a very 50-50 issue, actually it’s gained a point or two over the years. I think this will very much lift up the issue because people have never thought of it in those terms.”
Trump isn’t wrong. While polls show considerable majority support for keeping abortion legal, people are far more divided when it comes to late-term abortions. Just 13% said abortion should be legal in the third trimester in a 2018 Gallup poll, while 60% wanted it legal in the first three months of a pregnancy in that same survey.
2) Last week, liberals in Congress – led by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey – introduced the much-talked-about “Green New Deal” – a package of legislation designed to address the economic and environmental threat posed by climate change. According to CNN’s Lydia DePillis, the “Green New Deal” lays out:
“A 10-year ‘economic mobilization’ that would phase out fossil fuel use and overhaul the nation’s infrastructure while building whole new layers into the existing social safety net. … The 14-page resolution envisions a shift to 100% renewable and zero-emission energy sources, and calls for the creation of millions of new high-wage jobs to help wipe out poverty.”
While DePillis notes that Ocasio-Cortez and the other co-sponsors of the “Green New Deal” resist putting any sort of total cost to their plan, one estimate of a plan that resembles it by the conservative American Action Forum contends that there would be $1 trillion in additional regulatory burden – and that doesn’t even factor in the cost of all the new investments.
All you need to do is read a transcript of Trump’s speech in El Paso, Texas, on Monday night – billed as the first campaign speech of his 2020 race since the 2018 election – to understand how much of an opportunity Trump thinks he was handed by Democrats on these two issues. Lucky for you, I did read the Trump transcript – so you don’t have to!
Trump, repeatedly, hammered at the “Green New Deal.”
“I really don’t like their policy of taking away your car, of taking away your airplane flights, of, ‘Let’s hop a train to California,’ of … ‘You’re not allowed to own cows anymore,’” he said.
And: “They want to take away your car, reduce the value of your home, and put millions of Americans out of work, spend $100 trillion, which, by the way, there’s no such thing as $100 trillion. You have to spend $100 trillion. And remember this. No other country except us is going to do it. That’s a little problem, too.”
He also went after Democrats on abortion.
Democrats are in favor of “allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth,” Trump said at one point. Talking about Northam in particular, Trump said: “The governor stated that he would even allow a newborn baby to come out into the world and wrap the baby and make the baby comfortable, and then talk to the mother, and talk to the father, and then execute the baby. Execute the baby.”
Just in case you missed the point, Trump drilled it home this way: “They’re becoming the party of socialism, late-term abortion, open borders and crime.”
Here’s the thing: That line, if he keeps to it, could be very, very effective, politically speaking. Obviously, it over-simplifies both the “Green New Deal” and what Democrats have said and done on abortion. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker says Trump is “misrepresenting the Green New Deal as the plan is currently written.”)
But politics is often won by the simple argument or the easier-to-remember summation.
I can imagine the eventual Democratic nominee trying to explain that the “Green New Deal” represents a radical – and necessary – rethinking of our energy consumption habits and what they mean to the long-term health of the planet.
And Trump responding by saying: “How am I going to get you to Hawaii? By train?” (A line he used to poke at Sen. Mazie Hirono in Monday’s speech.)
And the debate audience erupting in laughter.
For those of you – and I know you are out there – who respond to that hypothetical scenario by yelling “IT’S YOUR JOB TO FACT CHECK THAT,” I would remind you of the 2016 campaign. And of the myriad fact checks that news organizations did on Trump. And how, for lots and lots of people who voted for him, the fact that he quite clearly lied, repeatedly, didn’t matter at all. In fact, the idea that media fact checkers often said Trump didn’t deal in actual facts made some decent chunk of people more likely to vote for him.
Why? Because Trump effectively painted Hillary Clinton, the media and everyone else who didn’t support him as uncaring elites. As the “other” – people who thought it was their right to tell the average person how to live their lives, even if those same people had zero clue about how average people lived.
Sound familiar? It should. Because that exact strategy is what Trump is putting in place right now. He’s painting a picture of Democrats as socialist baby-killers. Or in the words of Alvy Singer from “Annie Hall:” “Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re leftwing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.”
At the root of this strategy is a concession: Trump knows he can’t win if the 2020 election is any sort of referendum on him. A majority of Americans simply do not like him or think he is doing a good job. The one path for him to win is by painting his eventual Democratic opponent as not only deeply out of touch with the average American, but also more than willing to install a value system that makes the US look a whole lot like the less savory parts of Europe.
Cynical? Mightily so. But also Trump’s most plausible path to a second term. And one that Democrats are unwittingly aiding and abetting at the moment.