During Barack Obama’s second term, the White House let it be known the President had abandoned lofty foreign policy goals in favor of a more pragmatic one. His new mantra: “Don’t do stupid stuff,” or perhaps a more colorful version thereof.
History will determine the extent to which the 44th president met that standard. But it’s fair to say that, in recent weeks, stupidity has reigned within both major political parties, reminding us again why, in politics as in football, more elections are lost than won.
For the Republicans, President Donald Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on products from an array of countries, including China and our closest allies, has exacerbated international tensions and could jeopardize the strong economy that Trump inherited from Obama and has spurred with tax cuts and regulatory relief.
For the Democrats, increasing demands from many leading liberals and presidential hopefuls to dismantle the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has given the White House a convenient excuse to avoid questions about the real issue, its decision to fight illegal immigration by separating children from their parents.
Those are hardly the only current examples of “stupid stuff” clouding the political landscape. Recurring examples of the sorry ethics record of Trump, his family members and top administration officials underscore the inadequacy of executive branch oversight by a Republican Congress more interested in reprising problems from the previous administration. It’s hardly surprising that polls show a major voting issue this November is the desire of voters for lawmakers more willing to challenge Trump.
Meanwhile, some leading Democrats like California firebrand Maxine Waters are playing into Trump’s hands by continually talking about impeaching the president. That ignores advice of party leaders and shifts attention from issues like health care and the need for job-creating infrastructure projects where the Trump administration’s shortcomings are far more likely to turn swing voters against GOP candidates.
Interestingly, a Democrat who best defined the issues on which the party should be running this November was Anastasia Ocasio-Cortez, the young woman who unexpectedly ousted veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a recent New York Democratic primary.
In her campaign, she said little about either Trump or impeachment, noting in a post-primary interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that she won with “a laser-focused message of economic, social and racial dignity for working class Americans.
To win in November, she added, “What we need to do is to lay out a plan and a vision … that is going to earn and deserve the support of every working class American,” citing what sounded very much like a 2018 version of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 platform: Medicare for all, free college tuition and the government guarantee of a job for all.
To be fair, she was also one of the first to urge abolishing ICE, which seems to have prompted prospective 2020 contenders like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren to ignore her broader message and latch on to that more simplistic goal.
Like talk of impeachment, demands to dismantle ICE detract from targeting the real problem with the Trump immigration policy, which is the policy, not the agency implementing it. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had the right idea on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday when he called the Trump policy “a convergence of cruelty and incompetence.”
Meanwhile, Trump may be undercutting Republican hopes of benefitting this November from the strong economy by starting a trade war that only he thinks can benefit the United States.
So far, the tariffs themselves have been relatively modest, compared with overall trade. But there are already signs of negative impact on industries ranging from agriculture to automobile manufacturing, especially in areas where Trump did well in 2016.
If this continues, it could complicate the chances of GOP lawmakers from swing districts who tend to oppose Trump’s trade policy but have been reluctant to criticize the president himself.
As for their impact abroad, Trump himself suggested in a tweet Monday the tariffs may be spurring China to pressure North Korea against carrying out promises of denuclearization. And they seem certain to aggravate tensions at this week’s NATO meetings with European leaders already annoyed with how Trump has criticized them while cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, the predictably partisan and often overheated reactions to Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court add an unpredictable new factor this fall. Assuming no surprises, the chief political impact may stem from the votes of several Democratic senators facing re-election in states Trump carried in 2016.
But the November elections seem more likely to turn on whether voters feel a need to place a restraint on Trump or think the Democrats would be no more likely to deal with persistent problems like trade and immigration.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.