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Democrats shouldn’t assume their “Trump loves Putin” argument is a political winner

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2016 G20 State Leaders Hangzhou Summit
Vladimir Putin, doing something most Americans probably don’t care about.
Photo by Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images

Leading Democrats sense an opening. Spurred on by the CIA and FBI conclusions that Russia tried to help Donald Trump win the election, prominent liberals from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann have been ramping up their attacks on the president-elect for his coziness with the Kremlin.

Vox’s Zack Beauchamp runs down why we really should be worried by Trump’s stance on Moscow. But set aside the question of what to make of Trump’s policy. Politically, does raising the specter of Russia’s rising power represent the best way for Democrats to rally the opposition and hurt Trump’s popularity?

In short: Probably not, according to Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. (Grossmann is also the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and the co-author of a political science book about campaigns, and has written several studies and reports on Democratic Party messaging strategy.)

“The issue of, ‘But Trump’s close to Putin!’ is not going to be nearly enough,” Grossmann says. “It has to get to something people actually care about, like military conflict and the potential for American death. Short of that, this is going to be very difficult for Democrats to get a lot of traction with.”

Polling suggests Americans are indifferent

Here’s what recent polling has to say about Trump and Russia:

  • Only 31 percent of Americans say Trump’s relationship with Putin is “too friendly” and “not appropriate,” according to a new NBC News poll. That’s mostly Democrats — 61 percent of them, and only 8 percent of Republicans, feel that way. Close to 50 percent of the population has no opinion about it either way.
  • Of those who do think Russia is a major foe, sharp partisan divides are emerging. Republican voters’ opinion of Putin has soared in the past few months, suggesting that domestic political loyalties will take precedence over the public’s preexisting views about the threat posted by Russia, Grossmann says.
  • There’s also not zero evidence that Trump is vulnerable in the public eye over being soft with Russia. One Fox News poll from December found that somewhere close to half of voters thought Trump was being “too accommodating” to Russia.

Of course, events on the ground could shift the calculus of whether it’s worth it for Democrats to go after Trump’s policy toward Russia. If it turns out that Trump’s campaign was directly working with Putin during the election, if Trump’s mixed signals lead Putin to make a military incursion into Eastern Europe, if members of Trump’s Cabinet profit from decisions they make over Russian foreign policy — all of that really could give Democrats political ammunition they can deploy, according to Grossmann.

But Democrats might want to look elsewhere for now. House and Senate Democrats only have limited resources in where they can go after Trump. Between the Goldman Sachs bankers filling his Cabinet and his massive potential conflicts of interest, Trump offers almost too many avenues of attack for any one to stick.

As a Democratic aide on the Hill acknowledged to me last month: “We are often way too schizophrenic on all of these issues, and we just sort of throw things at the wall in a scattershot and incoherent way as they come up. We have to get smart and begin recognizing what attacks are sticking and which ones aren’t.”

So where might Democrats find attacks that do work? Here’s what some of the polling evidence suggests:

  • Polling has found that the public really might rebel against Trump’s decision to stuff his Cabinet with Goldman executives. We don’t have polls on the individual picks just yet, but a Morning Consult/Politico survey found 74 percent of Americans want presidents to nominate fewer bankers or were less likely to support a banker for a Cabinet post. Trump has picked three Goldman bankers for top positions; the Wall Street firm is infamously one of the least popular institutions in American life today.
  • Similarly unpopular is repealing Obamacare, which Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Trump’s Cabinet want to do. Just 25 percent of voters think the law should be repealed, including only half of Trump voters. Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services, is dead set on doing so.
  • Price is also tied to GOP plans to privatize Medicare through a voucher system. That’s also wildly unpopular with the public.
  • Even climate change may present a better opportunity. Trump Environmental Protection Agency pick Scott Pruitt is a climate change skeptic, which puts him on the other side of the public. (About 80 percent of Americans think global warming either is affecting the public now or will do so in the future.)

A question revisited: Should Democrats characterize Trump as a normal Republican?

During the election, there was a big fight among liberals over whether Hillary Clinton should characterize Trump as a normal Republican — or an aberrant break from the party’s mainstream.

As chronicled by BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer, the Clinton campaign made a decision in May to come down hard on the idea that Trump in fact was not a normal Republican. Their argument was instead that Trump was an outsider who had defiled the grand traditions of the party of Reagan.

“Hillary Clinton once cast Donald Trump as a product of the same old Republican extremism Democrats always talk about,” Cramer wrote. “Four months ago, her campaign blew it all up, arguing that Trump isn’t like any other Republican, distancing policy and partisanship from Clinton’s message, and dragging Democrats along.”

Grossmann notes that the question of how to take on Trump now closely mirrors this debate. On the merits, he says, Clinton’s campaign had a point: Trump clearly took new positions on issues like trade and foreign policy, and his unique personality (see: really does look different from anything Mitt Romney or George W. Bush would have done.

But as a political matter, it looks like breaking Trump off from the party didn’t work. In the end, 89 percent of Republicans voted for him in November. And that suggests to Grossmann that Democrats may have better luck tying Trump to historically unpopular GOP domestic policy programs — like tax cuts for the wealthy and reductions to domestic spending programs — that have helped Democrats get elected in the past.

“The Republican policy agenda around taxes, budgets, and entitlements are very unpopular,” Grossmann says. “There’s a reason Democrats have been making those kinds of arguments for generations.”