Tuesday 13 November 2018

Trump's takeover is complete as Democrats now a populist party

Put to the test: Senator Elizabeth Warren is between 1/64th and 1/1,024 Native American. Photo: AP
Put to the test: Senator Elizabeth Warren is between 1/64th and 1/1,024 Native American. Photo: AP

Rob Crilly

What connects Brett Kavanaugh, Pocahontas and American health policy? The answer lies in the extraordinary way that Donald Trump's steamroller tactics have captured not just the Republican Party but reshaped the entire political battlefield in his own, populist image with less than a month before midterm elections.

It did not start with the fight to confirm Mr Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court judge. But that battle, with allegations (denied by the judge) that he assaulted a woman when they were both high-school age, is a textbook example of how the president can bounce his opponents into the gutter.

Democrats should've known better... yet they took his culture war bait anyway. Once the debate became laced with questions about class, elite schools, and country clubs then the job was done.

The Democrats had legitimate reasons to ask about Mr Kavanaugh's fitness for the job. But those were lost as they moved into full oppositionist mode. Gone was any pretence of discussing their vision of how a Supreme Court is supposed to function, replaced by a populist, partisan fight.

The same thing happened last week, when Mr Trump put his name to an opinion piece in 'USA Today' which was a largely baseless attack on "Medicare for all", a policy endorsed by some - but not all - sections of the Democratic Party as a way of offering health care to all Americans.

The president's allegations, that it would close hospitals and put doctors out of jobs, depriving elderly people of services they had paid into while working, came almost entirely with evidence. But that, I suspect, was the point.

Democrats went for it, falling over themselves in their rage. The president was "a liar", they ranted, as the fact-checkers went into overdrive. Chuck Schumer, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, got out his red pen to "correct" the newspaper column, posting his handiwork on Twitter.

Nowhere amid the frenzy did I see the fully costed alternative health care proposal from the Democrats. Nowhere did I hear opposition politicians pushing back with nuance and detail. Nevermind the policy, here's the hyperbole.

And this week it is Pocahontas, the most bizarre example. Elizabeth Warren, the senator who might yet be the Democrats 2020 candidate for president, rose to Mr Trump's 'Pocahontas' insult with a misguided DNA test.

She has long claimed Native American ancestry much to the amusement of Mr Trump, who offered her a million dollars if she could ever prove it. Hence the DNA test. Which suggested a very distant connection - it said she is between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American.

Ms Warren's big mistake is the same as the wider Democratic error in strategy: She responded to Mr Trump's name-calling. Her effort to neutralise the issue merely ensured that a triviality became a major headline. She has not so much drawn a line under her Cherokee question as highlighted it.

In the same way, Mr Kavanaugh's confirmation may have motivated more Democrats to vote next month but waverers will not have been convinced that the Democrats have more noble aspirations for the Supreme Court than their opponents.

The winner at every stage is Mr Trump. He has set the terms of each debate. In so doing he has completed his grand project. His populist takeover is absolute.

After capturing the Republican Party he has now transformed the Democratic Party into a populist movement, animated only by its distaste for Mr Trump and defined by what it stands against - rather than what it stands for. That is how populist movements work.

That is bad news for a party that prides itself on winning when Americans are motivated by hope. Hillary Clinton discovered how that works in a presidential run. And her party seems destined to make the same mistake again.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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