As the field of credible Democrats running for president reaches 20, it’s disturbing to note how many feel compelled to start with apologies.
There’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, regretting her DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry; Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, regretting past hard-line positions; Sen. Bernie Sanders, regretting sexual harassment within his 2016 presidential campaign organization; and former Vice President Joe Biden, regretting how he failed, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, to prevent the sexist inquisition of Anita Hill, the Clarence Thomas accuser.
This “spate of sorrys” reflects how Democrats “understand that the party’s increasingly diverse base can be uncompromising on issues such as discrimination, criminal justice reform and immigration,” suggested an analysis in the New York Times.
Yes, I know, taken together, these Democratic transgressions pale in comparison to the pridefully repellent Donald Trump, who claimed in his State of the Union speech that he should be immune from investigations.
But these Democratic apologies presumably will end soon, and at that point the presidential candidates could look to Wisconsin and its most prominent statewide victors last fall — Tony Evers and Tammy Baldwin — as modeling how to win in the heartland.
Let me explain.
In a recent national poll, 56 percent of registered Democrats said they prefer a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with many of that candidate's positions. Just 33 percent in this Monmouth University poll said they would prefer a candidate with whom they agree on most issues if that person would struggle against Trump.
This Trump revulsion is especially strong among Democratic women. Sixty-one percent of female respondents said they would forgo some policy preferences for a candidate who could beat him, compared to 45 percent of Democratic men.
If the goal, then, is the most electable Democrat, consider the models of Evers and Baldwin, who came across as personally likable as well as pro-middle class, a combination likely to work in 2020.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank, suggested in a memo obtained by the Washington Post that the most effective case against Trump is that he broke promises, not that he is a liar and a fraud.
The Post quoted the memo’s synopsis: “The spotlight on these promises will synthesize what are already the American people’s worst perceptions of him, namely that he is dishonest; that contrary to his ‘populist’ campaign rhetoric, he is primarily concerned with helping the wealthiest and big corporations rather than the middle- or working class; and that he is personally corrupt, running a corrupt government.
“Most notably on the economy, candidate Trump made grand unequivocal promises that he would raise taxes on the wealthy including himself; that no more factories would close in America; that every decision he made would be guided by raising wages; that every American would get health coverage; and that he would crack down on Wall Street. In every instance, he has pursued policies that would do exactly the opposite.”
So, in sum, attack the performance, not the personality.
Which bring us to Evers and Baldwin. Each exuded authenticity and won substantial support outside Wisconsin’s urban Democratic strongholds with upbeat, issues-focused campaigns. The sort of vitriol and toxicity that has come to characterize modern politics was essentially absent.
Evers stuck to talking about how incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, his opponent, failed to deliver on education, health care and infrastructure and that Evers would make those his central mission. He did it often and with plain-spoken sincerity.
Now he’s a rock star, albeit a mild-mannered and bespectacled 66-year-old one. Last month, he got a spontaneous and raucous standing ovation at the Martin Luther King Day celebration in the Capitol Rotunda even before he stepped to the microphone.
It must really vex Wisconsin Republicans who won political arguments this decade by demonizing and caricaturing opponents that Evers wouldn’t play their game. Others were apoplectic that Walker had effectively disenfranchised political opponents for two terms, but Evers just stuck to his knitting, so to speak.
Just as the GOP flailed and failed before the election to paint Evers as soft on a teacher who viewed pornography on a school computer, they claim now that troubles with the deeply flawed Foxconn deal are Evers’ fault because he has somehow created a negative business climate — a laughable contention.
Then they claim Evers’ proposal to finance a middle-class income tax cut by capping a tax credit for manufacturers and agricultural producers — which provided a giant windfall for Walker’s donor class — would somehow devastate the state’s economy. Evers pointed out that a recent nonpartisan state report said 79 percent of that break goes to individuals with incomes topping $1 million and that 21 taxpayers with incomes topping $30 million are set to get an average break of $1.8 million in 2019. (That GOP tax credit pretty much exempted businesses from paying state income taxes, leaving ordinary taxpayers holding the bag.)
Hey GOP, here is a thought — versus Evers, those dogs just won’t hunt.
Then there’s Baldwin, who won re-election by 12 percentage points. If Evers prevailed by eschewing the politics of division and escalating the politics of issues, Baldwin won by fearlessly taking positions that resonated.
For example, she authored a bill that would require corporations to set aside one-third of board seats for members elected by employees. While the Koch brothers and other right-wing interests dropped millions on attack ads against the incumbent senator, they were silent on this proposal.
You’d expect them to call it a job-killing, socialist maneuver, but, well, crickets. That anecdote is featured in an article in the latest edition of The American Prospect, a liberal national magazine, that urges candidates to unite around a pro-worker agenda.
The GOP silence, asserted the article, was because “Baldwin’s proposal resonated with a hell of a lot of Americans.” A Democratic poll found it had majority support throughout the nation and, in Wisconsin, “commanded support not just in ultra-liberal Madison … but also in rock-ribbed Republican small towns and farms.”
What’s the takeaway here?
While most of us are tempted to wail on and on about the despicable personal character of Trump, leaders like Evers and Baldwin forgo the politics of bellicosity and focus on ideas to help ordinary people.
Call it corny, call it Pollyannaish, but in Trump’s America — rife with cynicism and hatred — you might also call it a winning strategy.