Stanley Greenberg makes key points about Republican decline – but the president’s opponents face tough challenges too.
by Lloyd Green
Nearly 35 years ago, the pollster Stanley Greenberg took a hard look at Macomb county, Michigan, wanting to better understand the political DNA of “Reagan Democrats”. He concluded: “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics.”
A supporter of Robert Kennedy in 1968, Greenberg saw class, not race, as the lever of choice in wooing Democratic voters. A quarter-century later, he was Bill Clinton’s pollster in his victorious 1992 presidential bid.
Now Greenberg delivers RIP GOP, in which he predicts that the rage engendered by Donald Trump will lead to his defeat in 2020, Democratic control of the Senate and the collapse of the current Republican party. Imagine the past midterms on steroids.
An illustration of a dead elephant lying on a mound of dirt, all four legs skyward, graces Greenberg’s cover. Apparently, the author is less interested in unifying the US than in forging durable coalitions. Think math, not therapy. It’s about 50% +1.
The book is methodically and meticulously researched. It portrays an America where white voters without a four-year degree remain nearly a majority and suburbia is home to half of the population. A country grown less worshipful and more diverse. We really do live in a bubbling cauldron of contradictions and countervailing forces.
In Greenberg’s telling, a galvanized Democratic party led by minorities, single women, younger voters and women with degrees will upend a decade of Republican ascendance built on the Koch brothers’ money, hostility toward modernity, racial resentment and nativism. It’s a bold prediction, even if Trump’s approval ratings are underwater and the GOP is scrapping primaries to avoid embarrassing their guy.
First, presidents seldom lose re-election, and unlike Bush 41, Trump is not mired in a recession. Inverted yield curves are not the same as actual negative growth or mass unemployment.
Second, Greenberg is betting progressive economics tethered to multiculturalism will not cost the Democrats the White House, a wager open to debate if the latest polling from Wisconsin, a state Trump won, is reflective of the state of play.
In the Badger state, Joe Biden, an establishment liberal with a marked following among older voters and African Americans, is the only Democrat holding a solid lead (nine points) over the president. Elizabeth Warren, whose kind words grace RIP GOP’s jacket, is in a dead heat with Trump. Reminiscent of 2016, she and the president are both weighed down by negatives.
A full-throated progressive, Warren has called for decriminalizing US immigration policy, which puts her at odds with Biden and most of the US. A plurality of Democrats and nearly two-thirds of Americans disagree with Massachusetts’ senior senator.
Looking at Brexit and immigration, Greenberg acknowledges that he has long been “critical of center-left parties for not showing that managing immigration was first principle and not showing that they would prioritize citizens over non-citizens”.
As part of his examination of the topic, Greenberg refers to the 15th amendment of the constitution as the legal foundation for “birthright citizenship”, by which those born within the US are automatically deemed to be citizens. Here Greenberg errs. That rule is enshrined in the 14th amendment, which secures equal protection and due process. The 15th amendment guaranties the voting rights of former slaves.
If history is a guide, the embrace of identity politics results in pushback. Hillary Clinton’s defeat was not just about having a tin ear to economic anxiety or income stagnation, a source of finger-pointing by Greenberg. Nor was it solely due to Trump’s race-baiting.
Clinton’s loss also stemmed from her worship at the altars of multiculturalism and political correctness. Showcasing Lesley McSpadden, mother of the late Michael Brown, at the Democratic convention may have been too much for too many after police were gunned down in Dallas and Baton Rouge earlier that July.
Trump fell into a similar trap. He persisted in harping on grievances, real and imagined, long after taking the oath of office. He continued to demonize minorities and migrants and made no attempt to reach to the center. Charlottesville and Pittsburgh indelibly stain his already toxic legacy.
Furthermore, bashing Colin Kaepernick hurt more than it helped in suburbia and swing districts. In those precincts, the public turned a deaf ear as the president kept on yammering about caravans and gangs.
Greenberg is optimistic that if the Democrats win they will be able to press for a more activist government. To a point.
The concerns and interests of middle-aged suburbia do not necessarily line up with those of the Squad or Bernie Sanders. Culture counts. If the midterms taught us anything, it is that imposing a check upon an untethered president should not be equated with a desire for a revolution or turning the US on its head.
Preserving the social safety net is different from unbridled government expansion. Safeguarding social security, Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare brings a larger constituency than stripping people of private insurance for the sake of single-payer healthcare. If the Democrats succeed as Greenberg predicts, they will do so by bringing some Republicans along for the ride, by definition a moderating action and influence.
Having been stung by the effective abolition of the deductibility of state and local taxes, wealthier coastal voters will also likely be resistant to a potpourri of costly initiatives. Infrastructure is one thing. The Green New Deal is probably something else.
Trade is another issue that may pit Democrats against each other. Although Greenberg has long sounded the klaxon concerning the impact of trade on America’s vulnerable, Trump’s embrace of protectionism has made free trade popular among Democrats.
Trumpism won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Rural Americans and evangelicals will not stop making themselves heard. Calls to blood and soil will continue. Meanwhile, Trump’s minions endeavor to enshrine a dynasty. Our political landscape has changed.
Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to George HW Bush’s 1988 campaign and served in the Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992.