Dear Democrats, Stop Boosting Trumpist Candidates!
The cynical campaign tactic is endangering American democracy
Today’s post is cross-posted at Persuasion, which I heartily recommend to my own subscribers for thoughtful reflection on current affairs and cogent defenses of liberal democracy.
Every wise parent knows how important it is to model consistency—not just in laying down the rules, but in abiding by them. The moment mom gets caught checking her text messages at the kitchen table after banning cell phones at dinnertime, the game is up. That’s because nothing undermines moral authority like evidence of hypocrisy that can be taken as a sign that the underlying principle all along has been, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
This is a lesson the Democratic Party sorely needs to learn, at least based on the way some of its leading candidates and campaigns have comported themselves in recent months.
The Danger to Democracy and Political Dirty Tricks
Ever since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee in the spring of 2016, Democrats have described him as acutely dangerous. After he defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election that year, the party began insisting that American democracy itself was now on the line. Joe Biden eventually rode that message—Trump and everything he stands for must be repudiated—all the way to the White House. After the insurrectionary violence of Jan. 6, 2021, the warnings grew even more adamant: Trump has spawned a movement of like-minded conspiracy-addled authoritarians in states around the country who would happily shred the rule of law to gain and hold power if they could. They simply must be stopped.
Yet, in a series of primaries this spring and summer, Democratic campaigns and affiliated groups have spent tens of millions of dollars deliberately boosting precisely the kind of far-right candidates the party regularly—and rightly—denounces as a potentially fatal threat to democracy.
They’ve done it in races for governor in Pennsylvania and Illinois. And in a pair of House races in California. And in senate and gubernatorial races in Colorado. In all of them, the tactic has been the same: run ads proclaiming the most extreme, Trump-adjacent candidate in the Republican primary to be “too conservative” for the state or district, or simply too much like Trump. This would be an attack ad in a general election, but in a GOP primary in 2022 it has the effect of boosting the extremist candidate with the highly energized, Trump-allied voters who are most likely to show up to cast ballots. This is especially so when the Democrats run the ads in conservative media markets, which they do. And that’s the idea: To increase the chances Republicans nominate a loon who will be easier for the Democrat to beat in November.
If we were dealing with normal politics, in which the outcome of any specific election is relatively low stakes, the tactic might be defensible in the marketing-based terms favored by political consultants. That’s the spirit in which former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill boosted Republican Rep. Todd Akin in the 2012 GOP senate primary by spending $1.7 million on ads labeling him “too conservative.” Akin, best known for his outrageous comment about women’s bodies avoiding pregnancies in case of “legitimate rape,” won the Republican nomination and lost to McCaskill in the general election, seemingly validating the high-risk act of political ju-jitsu.
But everything the Democrats have said for the past several years belies the view that things are normal in American politics right now. If democracy in the U.S. really is facing an existential threat from Trump and those who adopt his prevail-at-all-costs view of politics—and it is—then taking the risk of elevating those candidates is horribly reckless.
A Very Risky Bet
That’s especially so because the tactic can backfire.
I know of no evidence that Hillary Clinton did anything specifically to boost Trump’s primary campaign in 2016. But at the time there were nonetheless press reports suggesting that her staff bought into the logic by expressing joy at the prospect of facing the real-estate mogul and reality-show star in the general election on the assumption he would be much easier to beat than his more traditional rivals in the GOP primary.
In the current election cycle, probably the most indefensible example of giving into the temptation to boost an unfit candidate for political gain is Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro running ads to boost state senator Doug Mastriano as an opponent in the race for governor. Mastriano is an unhinged election conspiracist who has vowed to use his powers as governor to ensure that in a future 2020-style dispute over presidential vote counts and ballots, the Republican will receive the benefit of the doubt, regardless of what the official vote-tally shows.
Mastriano was already polling solidly ahead of the competition in the GOP gubernatorial primary when Shapiro’s ads began to run, so there’s no evidence they made a decisive difference in the race. Still, the most recent poll shows Shapiro leading Mastriano by a mere four points—in an electoral environment giving Republicans numerous advantages, not least of which is the Democratic president’s approval rating sinking into the basement. Why would the Democratic nominee for governor in a knife’s edge swing state want to do anything to increase the chances that a thoroughly Trump-aligned extremist will take up residence in the governor’s mansion in 2023?
Do Democrats Believe Their Own Dire Warnings?
The only answer I can think of is that Shapiro and other Democrats don’t actually believe their own alarmist rhetoric about the danger Trump and his allies pose to American democracy. Yes, they think these Republicans are bad. But they also thought Ronald Reagan was bad, and George Bush 41 and 43, and John McCain, and Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, too. Trump might be a little worse than these former opponents, but he’s just the latest in a long line of enemies who need to be defeated. Beating them requires demonization, and the poll-tested demonization of the moment is “Republicans are a threat to democracy.”
I’m not suggesting Shapiro or any of the others behind these ads (including a political action committee affiliated with Nancy Pelosi) consciously think in this hyper-cynical way. But I do think that what an economist would call their “revealed preferences” show that they are less committed to their stated view of democratic peril than one might think. Because if they truly believed American democracy itself were at stake, they wouldn’t spend a cent boosting a candidate like Mastriano.
In a world where American democracy really does face a threat from a revanchist movement contemptuous of the rule of law and norms for the peaceful transfer of power, the only acceptable response should be for pro-democracy parties and individuals to join forces to freeze the would-be authoritarians out of power, even at the cost of one’s own party having to face a more formidable foe in the next election.
Any partisan prefers his own side to win an election. But a public-spirited partisan prefers an opponent who, if that best-case scenario doesn’t work out, will govern responsibly and express unambivalent commitment to the system. We unfortunately live at a time when it isn’t possible to assume this about every Republican running for office—which puts Democrats in the position of having to make choices.
Some of them are choosing poorly—and that can’t help but raise troubling questions about whether their loudly expressed concerns regarding the fate of American democracy are sincere. If they want to prove they mean what they say, Democrats need to stop boosting Trumpist candidates who promise to tear democracy down.
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