Democrats, Try Some Self-Restraint

Will they keep pandering to their angry, radical base, or try to win over marginal Trump voters?


Anti-Trump protestors dressed as handmaidens in Palm Beach, Fl., Jan. 20.
Anti-Trump protestors dressed as handmaidens in Palm Beach, Fl., Jan. 20. PHOTO: JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

The energized base of the Democratic Party can’t seem to help itself. It may help President Trump win re-election.

It’s not certain that Democrats will retake the House, but if they do they will likely ignore their leaders’ preferences and push to impeach President Trump, or perhaps Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In a swap of Clinton-era positions, Democrats now lecture the nation that unseemly personal behavior makes the president unfit for office, while Republicans insist his private morality has no impact on his public duties. This is more than an arresting irony: Impeachment would undoubtedly energize Mr. Trump’s base and make these voters even more loyal to him—as it did with Bill Clinton.

Democrats have an alternative. They can set aside the precedent of the Obama years, when the party sought to enact the most extreme agenda it could pass, and instead search for common ground with marginal Trump voters. Democrats won’t win over his most ardent Tea Party members, evangelical Christians or other committed supporters. But a humbler, more open approach could attract some of his peripheral supporters and weaken the resolve of his base.

Democrats can support gay marriage without forcing small-business owners to violate their religious beliefs and participate in the wedding ceremonies; defend abortion without opposing the sorts of restrictions common in Europe, including waiting periods and bans on midterm abortions; fight global warming without making obsolete many Americans’ livelihoods and lifestyles; expand access to health care without eliminating private insurance; protect minority rights without condemning law enforcement; promote immigration while protecting the borders; value multiculturalism without removing all mention of God or tradition from the public square; and enact modest gun-control measures without stopping Americans from hunting and defending themselves.

While none of these positions would satisfy the core of the Republican party, they would attract many voters who reluctantly supported Mr. Trump. Unfortunately, since these stances don’t excite the Democrats’ base, they are unlikely to emerge from the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

Both political parties have spent the past several elections prioritizing enthusiasm within their bases over persuasion of voters in the middle. One result, after Mr. Obama’s eight White House years, was that many conservative voters felt alienated in their own country. Both party establishments ignored their concerns, only magnifying the sense of loss, vulnerability and anger.

Liberal disparagement of Mr. Trump, echoed by the mainstream media and cultural elite, exacerbates this feeling and binds many voters even more tightly to the president. Even voters who might otherwise condemn his personal behavior and some of his policies defend their guy reflexively as he is attacked by the same people who mock them.

Many evangelical leaders explain their support for Mr. Trump by citing King Cyrus, the pagan king from the sixth century B.C. who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and begin to rebuild their temple. Mr. Trump’s election, according to this view, would not be the first time God has used a nonbeliever to rescue his people and achieve his aims. One Trump supporter explains: “You don’t care if you like the lifeguard while he is saving you. You can call him a jerk after he gets you back to shore.” Many voters may not like Mr. Trump’s tweets or angry outbursts, but they care more about his defense of their religious liberty and good-paying blue-collar jobs.

Whatever happens in November, Democrats will have to decide whether to respond to Mr. Trump by motivating their most ardent supporters or by winning back some of the persuadable working- and middle-class voters they ceded in the last election. These voters supported Trump, but aren’t reliable Republican voters.

So far Democratic tactics suggest they’ve given up on marginal Trump voters for good. Both parties like to take turns believing they represent a new permanent majority, until the voters remind them otherwise. Democrats prefer open borders, Medicare for all and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These are fine opposition talking points, but they don’t provide a practical road map.

Liberals may question why they should have to show self-restraint, especially when the pendulum seems to be swinging back their way. American politics increasingly resembles the Middle Eastern variety, where each side remembers how it was slighted yesterday and vows to exact its retribution tomorrow. To avoid a backlash that will help Mr. Trump—or to help the country—Democrats may want to consider how else this cycle of escalation could end.

Mr. Jindal served as governor of Louisiana, 2008-16, and was a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Appeared in the October 9, 2018, print edition.

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