Can the Trump Kryptonite of Conor Lamb Save Democrats in 2020?


So: tonight we find out for real whether Donald Trump is doomed. That, at least, is the best spin I could use for sexing up the special election tonight in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district. Like all of the elections between now and the midterms, today is a little bit important as a gauge of the public’s mood. Donald Trump won the 18th district by 20 percentage points in 2016, so a defeat of Republican Rick Saccone by Democrat Conor Lamb, who leads in the latest polls, would be a bad sign for the G.O.P.

A quick reminder of who is who: Lamb is a former Marine and federal prosecutor who, at age 33, is seeking elective office for the first time. Republican State Rep. Rick Saccone, 60, is an Air Force veteran and businessman. Lamb has run to the center on abortion and guns, vowing to be independent from Nancy Pelosi (even stating he would prefer she be replaced as Speaker in a Democratic House), and Saccone has deviated from the line of Paul Ryan, supporting the tariffs on steel that Trump recently imposed. The district is heavily white and working-class.

With that out of the way, let’s pretend it’s Wednesday or later and jump ahead to lessons and recriminations. After all, even if Lamb loses, he’ll have gotten very close to winning. So we can assume that Republicans will be distributed into three angry factions, while Democrats will be distributed into two angry factions. Each will have its own spin on tonight’s results. Here’s what they’ll be saying:

Among Republicans:

1. Saccone lost (or nearly lost) because he embraced Trumpism.

It’s no secret that many establishment Republicans (and even non-establishment Republicans) hate and fear Donald Trump. They feel his election was a historical fluke that voters are already looking to undo. So the explanation that Trump caused this setback seems to make sense. Lesson among faction one: elected Republicans should stick to traditional party priorities and give Trump and Trumpism a wide berth. Otherwise, they’ll lose as badly as Rick Saccone did.

2. Saccone lost (or nearly lost) because he didn’t embrace Trumpism.

Saccone told people that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump,” but it’s a debatable claim. In policy, Saccone is associated much more with Tea Party preferences, friendly to fiscal austerity and antagonistic toward unions, and he’s also determined to bring more church into the business of state, introducing a bill to require the posting of “In God We Trust” at every school. Trump doesn’t care about reining in spending; he imposed tariffs on steel, in part, to make unions happy; and religion played no central role in his campaigning. Saccone hasn’t campaigned heavily on the issue of immigration; Trump did. Therefore, according to the pro-Trump faction, Saccone’s problem was that voters saw a conventional Republican when what they wanted was Trumpiness.

3. Republicans and Trump are fine. Saccone lost (or nearly lost) because he was a uniquely bad candidate.

This is a handy explanation that lets everyone walk away as friends, provided you aren’t in faction one or two, or at least not openly. Unsurprisingly, the G.O.P. establishment and the White House have tried to emphasize common ground. Which means tax cuts. These were the focus of Vice President Mike Pence when he went up to campaign for Saccone, barely mentioning stress points like trade or immigration. See? We agree! And then the lesson becomes to change nothing, because it was the fault of Saccone, who is a uniquely bad politician—and a lousy fund-raiser to boot. Never mind that Saccone is much more thoughtful and much less weird than Alabama’s Roy Moore. (He speaks Korean and has a Ph.D. in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.) Losing a district that was lopsided in favor of Trump was all Saccone’s fault.

Among Democrats:

1. Lamb shows us how to win in 2020.

Conor Lamb is supportive of steel tariffs, skeptical of gun regulation, and rhetorically pro-life, and he told voters, “I’m not running against President Trump.” As a pro-gun Marine, he also checks a number of patriotic and conservative boxes at once. This helped him win back the votes of Democrats who had defected over to Trump. For this faction of Democrats, Lamb shows that the party must proceed toward the middle on some social issues to win back the white working class.

2. Lamb does not show us how to win in 2020.

Lamb tailored his message to the sentiments of his district, which is generally sympathetic to Trumpism, if not to Trump the man, especially when it comes to guns and trade. But millions of Americans are coming into voting age, and the country is changing. Winning over tomorrow’s voters is more important than salvaging yesterday’s voters, and tomorrow’s voters are as interested in non-economic social issues as economic ones. They want to be at the forefront of social justice. Plus, we want to capitalize on the anti-Trump fire out there, not douse it. For this faction of Democrats, Lamb’s social moderation is fine locally, but in no way fine nationally.

Two other factions will stick around: Bernie Sanders fans who take Lamb’s impressive showing as proof that Bernie was right—Lamb went populist on economics but stayed subdued on culture—and Hillary Clinton fans who reject such an interpretation. Clinton managed to revive the issue over the weekend, when she told an interviewer in India that she won the wealthiest places, the “places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward,” while Trump’s campaign had a different sort of supporter: “You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women, you know, getting jobs.” That promptly opened up two more factions: those who deplore that Clinton would say this and those who deplore that she would think this. Conor Lamb seems to respect the voters of his district, and his showing was a reminder that the Democratic Party might try being more inclusive, itself.

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