Hours after being sworn in as a freshman member of the 116th Congress, Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib told a crowd of liberal activists of her plans for President Donald Trump: “We’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherf****r.”
Tlaib was cheered by the crowd – proving, in case there were still ANY lingering doubts – that there is simply no way of being too anti-Trump for the Democratic base. Impeach Trump? Great! Call him names? Even better! Make those names curse words? Best!
But here’s the thing: What Tlaib did on Thursday night might feel good for Democrats. It might make them feel as though they are regaining some of the fire and the fight they lost when Trump won in 2016. But it almost certainly is the wrong strategy if Democrats want to beat Trump in 2020.
Why? Well, put as simply as possible: Never wrestle with a pig because you both get dirty and the pig likes it.
To expand on that slightly: Donald Trump will say and do anything – and I mean anything – that he believes will work to his political advantage. There are no guardrails, there is nothing that he considers off-limits or out-of-bounds. You simply cannot go lower than he is willing to go.
So there’s that.
But there’s this, too: People don’t hold Trump to the same standards that they hold other politicians to. Look at the exit polling from the 2016 election. Two-thirds of voters (64%) said that Trump was neither honest nor trustworthy; one-in-five of those people voted for him anyway. A similar 63% said Trump lacked the temperament to be president; he won one-in-five of those voters too.
The point here is simple: Trump didn’t win because voters thought he was a great guy. They knew he wasn’t. Many of them disapproved of the way he ran his campaign – and the way he acted in his life. They just decided that other things, namely that he represented radical change in Washington, mattered more.
Calling Trump names – even explicit ones – isn’t going to convince people who are on the fence about him in 2020 to cast their vote for a Democrat. Remember that Hillary Clinton’s general election campaign was largely based on this flawed premise: We’re not going to elect someone like this guy as president, are we?
People did. And so it looks – at least to me – like the height of folly for Democrats to pursue a strategy over the next two years built around the idea of lowering themselves to Trump’s rhetorical level.
How do Democrats beat Trump then? The 2018 campaign – and the approach masterminded by Speaker Nancy Pelosi – sure looks like the right blueprint.
Even as Trump was trying to turn the midterms into a(nother) mud-slinging slopfest over the migrant caravan and Democrats’ alleged lack of concern for the safety of the American public, Pelosi pushed her side to stay focused on policies and votes that resonated with people outside of just their base.
Democratic candidates, committees and super PACs ran a massive number of ads focused on the votes that GOP House members had taken that would have ended protections for people with pre-existing conditions ensured in the Affordable Care Act. That was a tangible policy where Trump’s rhetoric – and his party’s legislative moves – put them badly out of step with critical swing voters in the suburbs.
It worked. Voters rejected Republicans in competitive seats across the country because Democrats effectively made the case that whatever you thought about Trump’s conduct in office (and his tweets), what really mattered were the policies that he and the Republican Congress put in place – and their adverse effects on people in their everyday lives.
I get why a lawmaker like Tlaib would say what she did on Thursday. She was inspired to run for office by a desire to take back the country from Trump. And she reflects an anger toward the President that courses through much of the Democratic base.
But words will never hurt Trump. And certainly not swear words. Every news cycle that is about a liberal Democrat calling the President a name and promising certain impeachment is a winning news cycle for the incumbent.
Trump responded Friday by calling the comments “disgraceful.”
“I think she dishonored herself, and I think she dishonored her family using language like that. … I thought it was highly disrespectful to the United States of America,” he said.
It’s “hard to impeach somebody that’s done a great job,” he added, then ran down the list of what he considers his accomplishments in office.
For a President who has struggled to win many news cycles since arriving in Washington two years ago, that is a gift Democrats simply should not give him.