Without getting too carried away, it can be said that America, its institutions, its democratic process, and indeed its people are undergoing a series of stress tests, both individually and collectively. Like medical and financial stress tests, these trials measure strengths and weaknesses, durability and vulnerability, by applying extreme pressure to ascertain what holds and what fails.
Some would say that Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2015 and 2016, and his presidency over the last two-and-a-half years, has been one giant stress test, first for the Republican Party, then for the full electorate. Since then, our governing process, each of the three branches of government, and the Federal Reserve Board have been tested, as well.
Most recently, we have seen those stress tests applied to the Democratic Party, in the conflict between “The Squad” (as a proxy for the left wing of the party) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a proxy for the party establishment and its more centrist elements). The conflict over impeachment could be added for good measure.
Not surprisingly, these stress tests have exposed fractures and fissures in these institutions, some more obvious than others, but on both sides and multiple points on the ideological spectrum.
President Trump said some things this week—not for the first time, I might add—that are beneath the dignity of the office he holds and which reflected badly on himself, his party, his government, and the country. Someone else can decide if his remarks were racist or not, but they were part and parcel of a cultivation of chaos and discord that he and his supporters relish. The conflict that follows him is reminiscent of the Peanuts cartoon character “Pig-Pen,” perpetually surrounded by a cloud of dirt, worn as something of a badge of honor.
Democrats had a choice in their response to the president’s “they-should-go-back“ rhetoric. They could respond in kind, or they could present a stark contrast with Trump. The first course would involve calling him names, not just labeling his words and behavior racist, but calling him one as well. An alternative approach would have been to say, in effect, “we are better than that,” trying to present the starkest possible contrast to behavior that many deem inappropriate. Democrats chose the former, which resulted in a chaotic, rancorous scene on the House floor, emblematic of the era we are in.
In my judgment, the latter course would have been better for Democrats, although it would have required considerably more effort and discipline. Democrats and their constituents are angry, as they have every right to be. One Democratic friend commented to me that the situation is now “almost completely out of control. I expect Dem leadership thought that this would be a vehicle to let folks blow off steam.” I can only quibble with the word “almost.” No question Pelosi had her hands full as she tried to thread a needle by backing up her members who felt disrespected, but not responding in kind. It may have been a no-win situation.
Many are criticizing Republicans for not standing up to Trump and condemning his behavior. The number of sitting members of Congress who initially criticized him can be counted on your fingers and toes. But how Democrats chose to respond enabled Republicans to get back behind their party, opposing the opposition to Trump, rather than having to defend his words and approach.
Those who can’t understand why elected Republicans and party officials don’t stand up to Trump seem to miss a point. The survival instinct in humans is a powerful one. In anticipating human behavior, it should always be kept in mind. The track record of what happened to those who did is pretty clear. They lost primaries or chose retirement. Instead, for many pre-tea-party Republicans, the strategy has been to shelter in place. The thinking goes that there is nothing that can be done to stop Hurricane Donald. The key is to survive the storm and be in a position to put the pieces back together and rebuild the party after it has passed. They know that the final edition of Profiles in Courage has already gone to the printer.
This next election is likely to be won by those voters who neither adore or abhor Trump, the 25 percent who tell pollsters that they only somewhat approve or disapprove of his performance, or they don’t know. They don’t vote in big numbers, but in close races they can make a difference. Among the 18 percent of voters in 2016 who had unfavorable views of both Trump and Hillary Clinton, they voted for Trump by a 20-point margin.
These swing voters are open to an alternative to Trump, but what that alternative is, they aren’t so sure. They are not in favor of a wall and don’t like his approach to health care, but nor are they on board with open borders and eliminating private health insurance. The venue of this election is quite important. On which part of the battlefield will the presidential race be fought? What happened on the House floor would suggest that Democrats could give up the high ground on this battlefield. This part of the stress test Democrats didn’t seem to pass.