Stormy Daniels has dominated the domestic political news environment over the past week, with high-profile media appearances by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Daniels’s attorney Michael Avenatti making headlines and leading the Sunday shows.
Among dedicated Trump haters, that’s made Daniels and Avenatti stars. Jacob Weisberg at Slate hails the attorney as a “brilliant egomaniac who could bring Trump down” while TPM’s Josh Marshall hails his ability to keep Trump off balance and force him into mistakes.
He's right about this. Even if people rag on Avenatti's TV ubiquity, it's unquestionable that the aggressive media and legal posture has put Trump and Cohen off balance and forced a series of major errors that are now baked into the legal process going forward. No question. https://t.co/Ysb7MmjFDQ— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 6, 2018
At the same time, the president’s approval rating seems to have gone up moderately during the storm. Stormy-related issues do appear to potentially put Michael Cohen in legal jeopardy, and he’s potentially vulnerable to cooperating with Robert Mueller in a way that puts Trump himself in legal jeopardy, but all of that is, for now, purely hypothetical.
In concrete terms, the problem with the Daniels issue for Democrats is it doesn’t really add anything to what everyone already thinks about Trump. People who stuck with a thrice-married birther who claimed Hillary Clinton literally founded ISIS through the “grab ’em by the pussy” controversy aren’t about to be suddenly scandalized by the news that he engaged in some legally questionable tactics to cover up an affair with a porn actress. It’s wrong to say that the carnival aspects of the Trump Show don’t do him any harm — his approval ratings remain underwater despite healthy economic conditions — but it’s hard for the circus to hurt him more at the margin given everything that’s already happened.
Democratic Party leaders, for exactly this reason, aren’t talking about Daniels; they’re talking about issues they think can cut into Trump’s base and/or improve their own image among voters. But they’re having a hard time breaking through.
Democrats want to talk about Trump’s unpopular policies
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi closed out last week with a tweet mentioning Trump’s decision to expel tens of thousands of legal immigrants from Honduras, slamming his decision to “tear apart families & communities across the country.”
But her main focus was on health care, trying to remind people of the hideously unpopular legislation House Republicans voted for last year and tapping Rep. Katherine Clark to deliver Democrats’ weekly radio address on health care.
#Trumpcare was nothing short of a moral monstrosity which would have imposed an age tax that would have allowed insurers to charge older Americans thousands more for their care. #ProtectOurCare pic.twitter.com/AMEdm50OHR— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) May 4, 2018
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to exploit Marco Rubio’s quasi-gaffe on the GOP tax plan to remind voters of another major unpopular piece of GOP legislation.
These issues appeal less to the MSNBC-watching faithful than the latest Stormy updates for two reasons. On the one hand, they’re simply not new and don’t scratch news hounds’ itch for novelty. Democrats are, literally, trying to remind people of big-picture GOP priorities, which is important for floating or marginal voters (who tend to be less attentive to politics than the average person) but largely irrelevant for the highly attentive types who watch politics-focused television shows. On the other hand, taxes and health care don’t feed into the narrative of Trump as being uniquely harmful in world history, rather than a banal standard-issue Republican.
At the same time, while no reasonable person could have gone through the 2016 campaign believing that Trump was a chaste man or scrupulously honest, one really could have watched it and believed that he was prepared to embrace heterodox policy ideas on taxing the rich and providing affordable health insurance to all Americans. He said the former thing occasionally and the latter thing frequently, and the idea of Trump as unconventional on economic policy was widely aired in the press.
Making sure people know it’s not true could be electorally potent — as could reminding people of what Democrats stand for.
Democrats have an agenda nobody knows about
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is actually running on a policy agenda of its own.
Their ideas include a range of measures to strengthen workers’ rights to form labor unions and go on strike, an ambitious infrastructure plan of the sort Trump promised but never delivered, the most sweeping revision of antitrust policy we’ve seen in a generation or two, a crackdown on prescription drug prices, and a big new scheme to subsidize child care costs for most Americans.
Critically, while none of this involves abandoning Democrats’ core commitments on racial or gender justice issues, all of it is focused more on the economic realm. Research from Vanderbilt University’s Larry Bartels shows that economic policy issues tend to unite rank-and-file Democrats while dividing Republicans, while culture war issues are exactly the opposite. Many Republicans, in other words, have at least a few strong disagreements with conservative economic policy, and many Democrats have at least a few strong disagreements with cultural liberalism.
A campaign focused on culture war topics, in other words, tends to shore up the GOP base, and one focused on economic policy can fracture it. Democrats, blessed with an unpopular incumbent president but cursed with a highly unfavorable set of House gerrymanders and an even more unfavorable Senate map, really need to fracture the GOP base to win.
The Stormy Daniels story is not exactly a frontloading of cultural liberalism, but it does tend to make politics be all about the Trump Show, which is in some ways the ultimate culture war issue — seen by some as a wretched stain of racism and misogyny and by others as a hilarious middle finger to the establishment. Whether or not Daniels’s case ultimately brings forth legal action that creates a huge problem for Trump, its domination of the media landscape is probably neutral at worst for him relative to other possible issues.
To maximize their potential this fall, Democrats need to find a way to cut through the scandal noise and make themselves heard on the issues they want to talk about.