Trump 'raised the stakes' of the midterms

Molly Ball, David Zurawik, Eliana Johnson, and Nicole Carroll discuss the media's storylines about the midterms, which have been nationalized partly by President Trump. "People are going to polls thinking about Trump," but politicians on the trail are focusing elsewhere, Ball says. Johnson says, "I think the president has raised the stakes of this election for himself" by being such an aggressive campaigner.

Posted: Nov 5, 2018 6:53 PM
Updated: Nov 5, 2018 7:25 PM

I have been through election weeks on campaigns many times before.

As the traveling press secretary twice for President Obama's presidential campaigns, as one of the spokespeople for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when we won back the House in 2006, as a junior press staffer on John Kerry's losing presidential bid, and in Iowa during the successful re-elections of both former Governor Vilsack and former Senator Harkin in 2002.

I always thought I knew what victory, and loss, felt like.

When you win, it is a feeling of elation, often followed by extreme fatigue. When you lose, it is disappointment and second-guessing, followed by extreme fatigue. I am far from the first person to say that 2016 was different. I wasn't a part of the campaign, but I was in the White House working for President Obama as his communications director. The aftermath of the election was of course shock, but not just because of the fact that President-elect Donald Trump and not President-elect Hilary Clinton was coming to the White House the following day. It was a shock because of what it said about the country we lived in.

Yes, we had missed something, along with nearly every other political prognosticator on both sides of the aisle, about the anger and dissatisfaction of large swaths of white America who had long voted for Democrats. Yes, Russia had intervened, and the dire impact of the propaganda campaign run effectively online by the Kremlin was still unknown, and its full extent still even is today. And yes, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

But it was supposed to be a shellacking, a win strong enough to carry the Electoral College. In part, our confidence stemmed from an assumption that the fight against racism, misogyny and bigotry would win out. That as a country we had made tremendous progress. That we had, all together as Americans, "bent the moral arc toward justice." That even if Donald Trump was a more effective campaigner than his opponent, there was no way the country could vote for him. And we were dead wrong.

The next day in the White House was not filled with strategy sessions about how we would preserve President Obama's record. It was filled with hugs, and private and group conversations trying to reassure members of our White House staff, including many who were African-American, Latino American, Muslim-American and LGBT, that it was going to be okay. That they would be okay and the country would be okay.

Now we are two years into this horrific experiment of having a racist and sexist failed businessman with no interest or appetite for strategic global engagement as our commander in chief. And it turns out we aren't okay.

Our worst fears we talked about in the West Wing on that November morning were not so far-fetched. The candidate who called for the "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," has gone on to put into law a partial Muslim ban, preventing nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States, and gone unchecked by Republicans in the House and Senate.

The candidate who already had a long history of racist remarks and actions -- from reportedly saying, according to a former employee, that "laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe it" back in the 1990's, to calling people who have come from Mexico "rapists" shortly after he kicked off his campaign -- has supported his administration's decision to separate children from their parents at the border, paving the way for kids to live in tent cities for months without knowing where their parents are and when they may be reunited.

The candidate who said "you have to treat 'em like s***" in reference to women in a New York Magazine profile, and joked about grabbing women in their genitalia shortly before he ran for President, has gone on to campaign for an accused pedophile running for Senate, defended a senior staffer accused of domestic abuse, and stood by a Supreme Court nominee even after he was accused of sexual assault.

Every midterm election is a referendum on the President, and especially the first one. This year there is no question Democratic enthusiasm is way up, and there is actual evidence of this given the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama and the victory of Governor Ralph Northam in Virginia.

Potential trouble signs for President Trump's re-election campaign in 2020 are a low approval rating that may also have a low ceiling, and the fact that his campaign itself may be under investigation -- but right now, Tuesday will determine what the next few years look like. Right now, Tuesday scares me. This is the first nationwide test of who we are as a country since his election.

Regardless of the cowardice of many elected members of the President's own party, will the American people stand up and reject hate and sexism? What if there is a silent mass of people in suburbs and swing districts who are embarrassed to admit they are voting for Trumplite members of the House and Senate?

This is a test of many unknowns, including whether young people will turn out in droves for the first time in a midterm election, whether the #metoo movement will help turn the disgust about Donald Trump's decades-old depiction of women into action, whether the fundraising advantages will lead to advantages in tough-to-win districts.

From this midterm election standpoint, I would rather be a Democrat than a Republican in this environment, but I am far more nervous than I was on election eve in 2006. Because if Democrats, independents and some Republicans who want a check on the President don't turn out, the outcome will be far worse than 2016.

President Trump will be running for re-election with an empowered base and a new line of bragging to take out to the campaign trail. The lesson will be that cracking down on immigration, fanning violence against the media and your opponents, and overtly racist campaign attacks and ads are not just fair game, but effective. That's not who America has ever been, but we shouldn't underestimate the potential for the President to do anything possible to gain re-election.

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