What Kind of Democrat Can Beat Trump in 2020?

Corey Lewandowski managed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for a year, co-wrote a book about it and keeps in close touch with Trump, as we were reminded last month, when The New York Times reported on a physical altercation between him and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, just outside the Oval Office.

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Frank Bruni
, New York Times

Corey Lewandowski managed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for a year, co-wrote a book about it and keeps in close touch with Trump, as we were reminded last month, when The New York Times reported on a physical altercation between him and John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, just outside the Oval Office.

So I figured that his thoughts about the best Democrat to take on Trump in 2020 were as germane as anybody’s.

He told me that Mike Bloomberg worried him, because Bloomberg’s personal wealth would spare him the distraction of fundraising, and that Joe Biden had the right instinct when he said that if he and Trump had gone to high school together, he would have “beat the hell out of him.”

He noted that Beto O’Rourke, the Senate candidate in Texas, had impressively crossed the threshold of celebrity. Andrew Gillum, the candidate for governor in Florida, had caught lightning, too.

The right Democrat would need a talent for attention and an appetite for aggression, Lewandowski said: He or she must “be willing to go toe-to-toe with someone who I believe to be the greatest counterpuncher that politics has ever seen.”

The midterms are Tuesday, but by Thursday they’ll be ancient history. We’ll turn to the next presidential election, using the Nov. 6 results as grist for arguments about who can topple Trump and how.

A moderate or a progressive? An old-timer or a newcomer? A woman or a man? That part of the drill is familiar, but it will have an unfamiliar urgency, because Trump ratchets up everything, especially the stakes.

And this time around, assuming that nothing interrupts the president’s bid for a second term, there will be a host of additional questions and concerns. They’re peculiar to his intentionally abrasive personality, his deliberately provocative tactics and his almost mystical domination of the media.

Should his opponent join him in the mud, which is the approach lawyer Michael Avenatti not only recommends but models? Is it even possible to avoid such a descent? Eric Holder and Hillary Clinton apparently think not, to judge by recent public comments of theirs. (“When they go low, we kick ‘em,” Holder said.)

But plenty of other prominent Democrats told me that the smartest strategy is to float above the muck, because campaigns are about contrasts and many Americans are desperate for something cleaner and calmer.

“There are a lot of people who are exhausted by the daily rancor that Trump has treated the country to and by this kind of tribal politics,” said David Axelrod, an architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

He told me that O’Rourke had raised such an unprecedented sum of money and drawn such big, adoring crowds because of his insistently upbeat style. “When there’s so much cynicism and so much vitriol out there and a guy comes along and he’s relentlessly the other way — earnest and positive and open — I think that’s disarming, and I think that there’s a lesson in that. It suggests that there’s a market out there for a more unifying figure.”

I happened to reconnect with O’Rourke recently in Fort Worth, Texas, and I asked him about the optimal tone for a Democrat at this juncture and about Avenatti’s and Holder’s repudiations of Michelle Obama’s “they go low, we go high” credo.

“Avenatti does not represent us,” O’Rourke told me, meaning most Democrats. “Eric Holder — what he said — that’s not where we’re at.” He added that among American voters, “there is a real concern about civility — not for the sake of manners but for the sake of the country working.”

Some Democrats even believe that an eloquent summons to civility and exhortation to move beyond rank partisanship could be thewinning message, because Americans increasingly grasp the peril we’re in — the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was only the latest bloody illustration — and because Trump can’t ever claim to be an agent of healing.

“It’s about confronting him where he’s weakest,” said Bob Kerrey, the former senator and former Nebraska governor. “You have to say to the audience: This country is dangerously divided and it’s on the edge of something awful.”

Kerrey said that in a perfect world, a Democratic candidate would go even further than that in the primary and tell voters: “You’re going to get angry at me, because I’m going to embrace a Republican idea if it feels good. Don’t expect me to be 100 percent — 100 percent may make you happy, but it won’t pull this country together.”

I love the sound of that. I also suspect it’s a doomed fantasy.

Trump’s eventual adversary confronts a daunting balancing act: He or she must be tougher than usual without being callous, mingle the right measure of pugilism with optimism and avoid the self-examination and self-recrimination that never trap Trump. Philippe Reines, a longtime spokesman for Clinton, made that point funnily in an op-ed essay in The Washington Post in March, counseling Trump’s would-be challengers: “Don’t apologize. Ever. Not over money you took from Harvey Weinstein. Not even for attacking the pope. In fact, proactively attack the pope. Your kid is a shoplifter? You’re proud of them for exposing inadequate security.”

But for starters, Trump’s Democratic opponent must emerge. And that will be tricky in a field of prospective candidates that’s about three-dozen-people large at present.
“Nobody’s ever seen anything like this,” said Jim Jordan, who initially managed John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “The field is so big it’s duplicative. We have multiple candidates from Massachusetts. Multiple from California. Multiple Western governors. Multiple women. Multiple billionaires.” At the first debates, Jordan added, “There’s going to be a kids’ table for the kids’ table.”

Standing out will require one nonnegotiable quality: the vividness to loosen Trump’s stranglehold on the media. To that end, any serious challenger has to figure out how to tell his or her story in a riveting way. “High emotion” was how Naomi Burton described what a candidate should reach for. She and Nick Hayes run the Detroit firm Means of Production, which helped with the viral biographical video at the center of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning rise. Hayes told me that candidates should be wary of relying on “traditional commercials, which people are bombarded with on a daily basis.”

Trump tweets to bold if bilious effect. His opponent must also bend social media to his or her will. Many Democratic politicians have been trying to do that, with varying success. O’Rourke’s defense of football players who kneel during the national anthem went as viral as imaginable, and his live streaming of everyday minutiae on Facebook has been the perfect complement to his folksy, hyper-accessible brand. But Sen. Cory Booker’s self-described Spartacus moment during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings didn’t quite pan out — his rebellion was more transparently stagy and less audacious than advertised.

There’s no exaggerating the hell of jostling for space at the media trough where Trump gorges to the point of bursting. He has shamelessness on his side. Look at last Tuesday: His claim that he might end birthright citizenship through an executive order became the main news story, even though he can do no such thing, almost certainly knows that and was engaged in a political stunt meant to energize the base for the midterms. Some morsels are just too delicious for journalists and pundits not to sup on.

So there’s pressure on a Democratic challenger not just to communicate memorably but to say memorable things — i.e., new ones.

“Candidacies need to have a level of originality and ambition,” said Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a rising star in the Democratic Party. He stressed the policy side of this and possible discussions about “whether guaranteed income is now right — a more novel idea like that. I think you’re going to hear more people talking about constitutional amendments in a way that we really haven’t since the ERA.” Those amendments might touch on the Electoral College, on campaign financing, on voting rights. His point — a vital one — was that mere tinkering with the tax code or amorphous job-training proposals are yawners for duller times. They pale beside a border wall and a Muslim ban.

As much as possible, Trump’s adversary needs to set the terms of the conversation, not react to his incessant provocations, which is what Sen. Elizabeth Warren was doing with her clumsy reveal of a DNA test that suggested some Native American blood in her. I don’t see eye-to-eye with California billionaire Tom Steyer on the timing and timbre of his Need to Impeach effort, but I found myself nodding hard enough for a neck injury when he recently told me his version of the Michelle Maxim: “When they go low, we play our game. When they go high, we play our game. When they bluster, we play our game.” It just better be a damned good game.

And it better not sneer at Trump and condescend to his supporters. No baskets, please, and no deplorables. Midwesterners who voted for him won’t be lured back into the Democratic fold if they’re made to feel ashamed about their decision and told that they were duped.

“That would be fatal,” said Beth Myers, a prominent Republican consultant and longtime senior adviser to Mitt Romney. She wasn’t speaking as someone who wanted a strategy to dislodge Trump; she was just sizing up the situation.

She noted that most of the Democrats signaling possible candidacies “are from blue states and don’t really understand the Trump phenomenon — and that is a disadvantage. In my little liberal Democratic world in Massachusetts, people seriously can’t comprehend how this guy got elected president. But when you travel around the country, it’s veryclear.”

Her liberal friends, she added, will ask her, “How can we have let this happen?” And she has to explain to them that “there are a lot of people in the country who have views different from you. This is their guy. And you need to understand that before you run someone against him. Hillary Clinton couldn’t even understand how this guy could be considered. That was a hugeproblem for her.” Axelrod made the same general point to me, and I think it’s thecrucial counsel. “If Democrats are going to win in 2020, it can’t be with the careless presumption that everyone who voted for Trump is a toothless, ignorant racist,” he said, adding that voters who were still reeling from the 2008 financial collapse and voters disgusted by the paralysis on Capitol Hill “viewed Trump as the kick in the ass that Washington needed. There has to be room for these voters, but if they’re shunned and belittled for having supported him in the first place, they will just be driven further into his column.”

Lewandowski and I didn’t get into that, but we got into plenty else. He said that politicians with fewer years in office and shorter records often have an advantage over those with more years and longer ones: There’s less to defend and explain. Obama, he noted, wasn’t even midway through his first term in the Senate when he announced his presidential bid.

Lewandowski reminded me of how much traction Trump got by portraying himself as an outsider to Washington. A Democratic nominee who’s a governor, mayor or business owner may be the way to seize that mantle. What came through most clearly in talking with him and with others — and what I’ve come to believe more firmly — is that if you want to beat Trump, learn from him. Heed his smartest strategic decisions. Acknowledge and incorporate a few of the qualities that admirers attribute to him and were attracted by.

Be direct, blunt and consistent. “He has the same message today that he did the day he came down the elevator at Trump Tower,” Myers observed. “The message discipline is incredible. He has never wavered. It’s very real and very powerful.”

Convey strength. More than ever voters seem to crave that, and many see it in Trump — in the steadiness that Myers mentioned, in the way he confronts cultural headwinds, in his sustained advocacy for Kavanaugh. “The American people like a fighter,” Lewandowski said. “Donald Trump proved that.”

Plant yourself in the Rust Belt. “I’ve given this advice to two or three people who’ve thought about running — don’t think about anything other than what you’re going to say in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan,” Kerrey told me. “Why should people who hunt, fish and go to church trust you? What is your answer to globalism?”

Too many Democrats spend too much time trumpeting Clinton’s popular-vote victory, blaming the Russians or combing the shadows for anything that absolves them of error. They dismiss Trump as an accident, a freak or a fad. It’s consoling, sure. It’s also an invitation to his next inauguration.

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