How important do Democrats think it is to beat President Trump in 2020?

Obviously, most Democrats would say it’s vitally important. Four more years of the Trump presidency could allow him to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. It would worsen the climate crisis. It could cement his paranoid racism and scorn for democracy as the new American normal.

Given these consequences, you would think that Democrats would be approaching the 2020 campaign with a ruthless sense of purpose. But they’re not, at least not yet. They are not focusing on issues that expose Trump’s many vulnerabilities. They have instead devoted substantial time to wonky subjects that excite some progressive activists — and alienate most American voters. Recent polls suggest that the Democrats really are increasing the chances Trump will win re-election.

The good news is that the campaign is still just getting started. Many Americans haven’t yet paid much attention. The next phase starts Thursday night, with a debate in Houston featuring the 10 leading candidates.

It’s a chance for Democrats to start treating the 2020 campaign with the urgency it deserves.

[Sign up for David Leonhardt’s daily newsletter with commentary on the news and reading suggestions from around the web.]

Before I get into the polling, I want to make clear that I’m not making the argument that some centrists and conservatives have made. By now, you’ve probably heard claims that Democrats are hurtling toward socialism and instead must return to the triangulation of the Bill Clinton years. The evidence doesn’t support that view.

Over the past two decades, incomes for most Americans have barely grown. Median wealth has declined. Americans are frustrated, and a majority supports a populist agenda: higher taxes on corporations and the rich, expanded government health care and financial aid, a higher minimum wage, even a Green New Deal.

The Democrats are on solid ground, substantively and politically, by pushing all of these issues. They should be casting Trump as a plutocrat in populist’s clothes, who has used the presidency to enrich himself and other wealthy insiders at the expense of hard-working middle-class families. It’s a caricature that has the benefit of truth. When pundits yearn for economic triangulation, they’re the ones confusing their own policy preferences with good political advice.

The mistake that Democratic candidates have made is thinking that just because they should activate their progressive id on some issues, they should do so on all issues.

There are two main examples, both of which have received a lot of airtime during the presidential debates. The first is the idea of decriminalizing border crossings, so that the illegal entry into this country would be only a civil violation. Most top Democratic candidates — Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — support the idea. If illegal entry weren’t a crime, they say, Trump couldn’t lock people in cages.

Supporters of the idea make intricate, technocratic arguments about how decriminalization won’t make the border less secure. But most voters tune out. They don’t buy the long explanations for why the policy doesn’t mean what it certainly seems to mean: less border enforcement. In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 67 percent of registered voters called decriminalization “a bad idea.”

Out of Step

Most of the Democratic Party’s agenda is popular with the public, but several ideas being pushed by the 2020 presidential candidates — including the end of private health insurance and the decriminalization of border crossings — are deeply unpopular.

Half or more of

registered voters oppose:

UNSURE

BAD IDEA

GOOD IDEA

Decriminalize border crossing

27

6

67%

Slavery reparations

26

11

63

Replace private insurance

40

5

55

Repeal Obamacare

45

5

50

Majority support:

Free public college

45

4

51

$15 minimum wage

42

3

55

A “Green New Deal”

34

6

60

Millionaire tax

34

5

61

Pathway to citizenship

32

5

63

Regulate drug prices

28

5

67

Voluntary Medicare for all

26

5

69

Gun background checks

10

2

88

Half or more of

registered voters oppose:

BAD

IDEA

GOOD

IDEA

Decriminalize

border crossing

27

6

67%

Slavery reparations

26

11

63

Replace private insurance

40

5

55

Repeal Obamacare

45

5

50

UNSURE

Majority support:

Free public college

45

4

51

$15 minimum wage

42

3

55

A “Green New Deal”

34

6

60

Millionaire tax

34

5

61

Pathway to citizenship

32

5

63

Regulate drug prices

28

5

67

Voluntary Medicare for all

26

5

69

Gun background checks

10

2

88

By The New York Times | Source: NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, conducted July 15 to 17

The second example is a proposal to eliminate private health insurance and require people to have Medicare. Sanders and Warren back it. Again, supporters offer complex arguments about why Americans will love this idea (especially if it’s phrased in just the right way) — and, again, most Americans say no thanks. They’re dealing with enough economic anxiety, without having their health insurance taken away and replaced by something uncertain.

The shame is that both health care and immigration should be Democratic advantages. Most voters recoil at Trump’s racist immigrant-bashing, and most want the option to join Medicare. And if Democrats want to reverse Trump’s policies, they need to beat him, not offer policies, like decriminalization, that would hypothetically constrain him.

Yet Democrats are frittering away their advantage — and damaging their image. Last fall, most Americans had a favorable view of the Democratic Party, according to the Pew Research Center. That makes sense, because Democrats ran a populist campaign in the 2018 midterms, focused on pocketbook issues that dominate many people’s lives, like wages and medical costs.

This year, the polling has flipped. Most Americans now have an unfavorable view of the party, no better than their view of the Republican Party. Likewise, slightly more voters say the “ideas being offered by the Democratic candidates” would hurt the country than say would help, according to the NPR poll.

I recognize that the subject of race looms over this discussion. By making the case for border decriminalization (as well as slavery reparations), Democrats are trying to signal their rejection of Trump’s white nationalism. But there are ways to do that without pushing deeply unpopular policies. Several candidates instead seem to be advocating an agenda that liberals think black, Latino and Asian-American voters support, rather than the agenda that most actually support. More than 60 percent of voters of color, after all, say that border decriminalization is a bad idea.

The best strategy for Democrats is a populist one that speaks to voters of all races, the sort of campaign they ran last year and that Barack Obama ran in both 2008 and 2012. Those worked out pretty well.

In many fields — politics, business, the military, sports — successful leaders ask themselves what their opponent wants them to do, and then do the opposite. If Democrats at this week’s debate keep talking about border decriminalization and mandatory Medicare, I know that many well-meaning liberals will be happy. But I can think of someone else who will also be happy: Donald Trump.

Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});
(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});