Never Trump Republican pundits lament that the Democratic primary is not catering to them

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The anti-Trump New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warned Democrats over the weekend that they are “flubbing” their opportunity in the upcoming election by moving too far left.

Wait, I’m sorry, Stephens wrote that column a month before the 2018 midterm elections. Hold on. 

The anti-Trump New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warned Democrats over the weekend that they “should be walking away” with the upcoming election but aren’t because they are moving too far left.

Hang on, that’s the column Stephens wrote one week before the midterms. Let me try again.

The anti-Trump New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warned Democrats over the weekend that they need to “start building real bridges to the other America” to win the upcoming election rather than moving too far left. 

Ack, wrong again, that is Stephens’ column from the day after the Democratic wave election. I’m sure I’ve got it somewhere.

The anti-Trump New York Times columnist Bret Stephens warned Democrats over the weekend that they are “going to lose the elections” by moving too far left. 

Ah yes, that’s the one

This time, Stephens is worried about the effect of last week’s Democratic debates on “ordinary people,” a term undefined in the column but which he later tweeted meant, for example, “people who voted for Obama and later Trump.”

Stephens is part of a small contingent of anti-Trump conservative voices who, having spent much of their careers in right-wing institutions, are now alienated from their movement, but confident that they still speak for the American electorate. The group doesn’t want Trump to win reelection, but rather than offering a clear-eyed analysis of the most effective way to prevent that, its members are spending much of their time mistaking their interests for that of the electorate as a whole.

The 2016 election is perfectly suited to produce this kind of debate over strategy. The winning candidate received 3 million fewer votes than the losing, but he won an Electoral College victory thanks to roughly 79,000 votes in three states. 

The Never Trumper choice of which demographic the Democrats need to win back varies. But Times columnist David Brooks said the quiet part loud in his version of this column. “My question to Democrats is: Will there be a candidate I can vote for?” His peers talk about “working class whites” or “independent voters” or “socially moderate Trump skeptics,” but policies they cite as turnoffs to those voters -- including on immigration, health care, and race -- are inevitably Democratic positions that make the columnists themselves uncomfortable.

It may be enjoyable for Never Trumpers to imagine themselves as representatives of the people. But they are not an appropriate stand-in for Democratic primary voters. Of course a set who cut their teeth at National Review or The Weekly Standard or the Wall Street Journal editorial page think the Democrats are too liberal -- their entire careers are devoted to making that case.

Never Trumpers are also not representative of the nearly nine in 10 Republicans who approve of Trump’s job performance.

And notably, Stephens and company generally do not oppose Trump because of major qualms with his administration’s policies, but because they feel that his bigotry and instability make him unfit for office. Brooks, for example, is concerned that “Democrats aren’t making the most compelling moral case against Donald Trump” because they didn’t spend enough time discussing how the president “rips to shreds the codes of politeness, decency, honesty and fidelity.” That’s the very argument that Hillary Clinton made during the 2016 election. Either that strategy is insufficient to win over Brooksian conservatives, or there simply aren’t enough of them. 

Stephens’ declaration that a Democratic presidential candidate needs to focus on winning back Obama-to-Trump voters is closer to conventional wisdom, but it is nonetheless deeply flawed. These voters were much more likely to support conservative positions than other Obama voters were. Appealing to them with more moderate policies could easily become counterproductive if more Obama-to-Clinton voters decide to stay home in 2020.

But there’s another strategy available to Democrats, one that the candidates appear to be pursuing but of which the Never Trumpers seem unaware. Roughly 30 percent of eligible voters did not go to the polls in 2016. And voters in demographics that lean Democratic were less likely to vote than those that lean Republican. More voters who cast their ballots for Obama in 2012 either stayed home or voted for a third party in 2016 than supported Trump. And the Obama-to-nonvoters  are more likely to identify as Democrats and support progressive priorities. The Democratic presidential candidates may be pursuing progressive policies not because they’re blinkered or out to stick it to Bret Stephens and David Brooks, but because they believe this is the best way to get those voters to the polls. 

This strategy may not work. Perhaps the mix of policy statements won’t actually attract the disengaged base voters; perhaps by pursuing them, the candidates miss out on the opportunity to make their case to other voters. Coalition building is hard -- there are no guarantees in presidential politics. And if pundits claim over and over again that Democrats are going to lose, eventually they’ll be correct. 

But pursuing disaffected Obama voters makes more sense than pinning hopes on securing the votes of Brooks and Stephens.