Like a taco bowl from Trump Tower Grill, the Republican Party is being devoured by a demagogue. Now that Donald Trump has wiped out the last of his primary opponents, Republicans find themselves in the awkward position of being expected to take a stance on a presumptive nominee whom many of them despise. Suddenly, the ambiguous distinction between “support” and “endorse” has become a point of contention. And while much of the party is rallying around Trump, some Republicans, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) , are withholding their support or disavowing him altogether.
Despite the obvious threat to the country posed by Trump’s nomination, many Democrats cannot help reveling in their apparent good fortune. Trump has splintered his own party and, with his record of bigotry and misogyny, handed Democrats a powerful weapon to deploy against Republican candidates in competitive races nationwide. But Democrats should tread cautiously as they devise their game plan for the general election. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to stay in the race until the convention, Hillary Clinton is extremely likely to be the Democratic nominee. For Clinton and the rest of the party, though, Trump’s nomination could present a dangerous trap.
"While the Democratic establishment may be tempted to wage a campaign of “triangulation” — the centrist strategy that Bill Clinton made famous in the ’90s — moving to the center now would be a lousy idea."
Given Trump’s historic unpopularity, some will argue that Clinton should tack to the center in an effort to win over disaffected Republicans and independents. Already, there have been reports that Clinton “is looking for ways to woo Republicans turned off by the brash billionaire,” and her backers have reached out to Republican donors seeking their support. Yet while the Democratic establishment may be tempted to wage a campaign of “triangulation” — the centrist strategy that Bill Clinton made famous in the ’90s — moving to the center now would be a lousy idea.
There is no guarantee that pivoting to the middle would attract a significant number of Republicans, who generally loathe Clinton, but it would almost certainly dampen enthusiasm among progressives. Indeed, while Sanders might endorse Clinton at some point, she still has to earn the support of millions of people who voted for him if they are going to remain energized through the fall campaign. On key issues including trade, campaign finance, tuition-free higher education and the $15 minimum wage, Sanders supporters want to see their values reflected by the Democratic nominee. And these voters, including a rising generation of young activists, can both lift Clinton to the presidency and drive Democrats’ efforts to regain majorities in Congress.
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At the presidential level, the strategic calculus should be straightforward. Democrats have demographics on their side due largely to their massive advantage with minorities and women, who make up a growing share of the electorate. But as progressive activist and pundit Van Jones has argued, Trump “can’t be beaten by assuming that demographics are going to save us.” Instead, Clinton’s fate will depend on her ability to ensure that large numbers of Democratic voters vote. For that reason, her top priority should be maximizing turnout among the constituencies that are most likely to support her over Trump, which means embracing a more progressive agenda. Meanwhile, mobilizing the base will be even more critical in down-ballot races, especially in swing states and House districts where demographics are less of a factor.
The theory that Clinton would benefit by tacking to the center also misinterprets the lessons of the primaries and misreads what independent voters want. Sanders mounted a strong primary challenge by rejecting the bipartisan consensus on matters such as trade policy, an issue that Trump has effectively exploited as well. These deviations from the centrist orthodoxy do not merely appeal to voters on the left. They are part of why Sanders polls better than Clinton among independents and in hypothetical matchups against Trump. Accordingly, if Clinton seeks to boost her moderate appeal by further distancing herself from Sanders’s agenda, she risks ceding important ground to Trump in the general election.
Clinton ultimately faces the same choice between persuasion and mobilization that both parties confront every four years. What makes this year unique, of course, is Trump — and in an unconventional year, a conventional campaign driven by big donors and state parties will not be good enough. To prevent Trump from reaching the White House, Clinton will need to inspire a movement by putting forward a bold platform and prioritizing effective unconventional voter registration efforts and grass-roots outreach, including the kind of digital outreach that Sanders has done so well over the past year. This is also why it is important for Sanders to remain in the race until the convention.
Throughout the primaries, Clinton has described herself as “a progressive who gets things done.” To live up to that label, Clinton should resist the urge to run to the center — especially when the Republicans most likely to switch sides are foreign policy hawks and Wall Street types who could impede the increasing momentum for progressive ideas. By running a progressive campaign and winning, Clinton can do something lasting and important. She can move the center to the left.