On Blue Waves, Red Meat, and Black Outreach
In politics, as in all competitive pursuits, there are a million ways to lose. But none is any more certain than writing off huge swaths of potential votes merely because of past or recent performance within certain groups. We all witnessed the ultimate demonstration of this principle when Mitt Romney infamously identified "47 percent" of the electorate that would never consider supporting him.
Ironically, though, the left is usually more susceptible to this error, or more precisely, the flip side of the same coin: taking the votes of certain groups for granted. And that is why so many over there are in a flop sweat over the apostasy of a man named Kanye.
President Trump, everyone can agree, is a unique chief executive. Opinions on what this should recommend him for run the gamut from immediate impeachment (Maxine Waters and Robert De Niro) to eventual canonization (Scott Pruitt and Sean Hannity). But there is more to be learned from focusing on the factual source of his uniqueness than its supposed moral implications.
Here is a list of things at which Trump excels that are uncommon among politicians, all of which proceed from his decades in the business of real estate development:
- Deep understanding of, and comfort with, risk. Most politicians – especially incumbent ones – are observably risk-averse. They often behave as though the downside is all that exists. And it is easy to guess why. In 2016, the re-election rate for incumbents was 97 percent in the House and 93 percent in the Senate. Governors seeking re-election fared a bit poorer, but four out of every five still won. Numbers like that more than adequately explain why those with skin in that game prefer to “play it safe.”
- Awareness that, by definition, profit exists at the margin. In political terms, profit means more votes; and Trump, whether by strategy or instinct, shows a willingness to pursue them even – sometimes especially – in the very areas that most observers expect him to fare poorly. This tendency goes beyond the referenced outreach to black America that has made Candace Owens famous and saw Kanye West tweeting quotes from Thomas Sowell. For example, while Trump’s opponents have tried to brand him as a misogynist, he has appointed six women to Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions. That may not sound like many – until you know that it amounts to more than a 10th of all such appointments in American history, which includes 14 presidents since FDR began the count by appointing Frances Perkins secretary of labor in 1933. It also keeps him in line with recent Presidents Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama, who appointed seven, four, and eight women, respectively, in their first terms. And this points up No. 3:
- Devotion to the truism that actions, especially over time, speak louder than words. Even as he relentlessly promotes his accomplishments, he also does something even more important: He keeps notching accomplishments to promote. Maybe it’s just a side effect of what Kanye calls “dragon energy,” but Trump consistently shows the ability to simultaneously walk, and chew gum, and rub his belly, and pat his head, and tweet, and juggle chainsaws.
Think that’s exaggerated? Previously, a single sex scandal has disrupted entire agendas. Trump has since inauguration had one of those, and a special counsel investigation, and a leaking, conniving FBI director, and an impeachment chorus, and a steady stream of high-profile departures, and “NeverTrump” hostility within his own party, and a looming nuke crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and bitter political battles over immigration policy and gun control, and a resigning House speaker, and a Mirandized personal attorney.
And through all of this, GDP is now growing above 4 percent; a tax cut got passed; the Paris climate accord was scrapped; our embassy in Israel was moved; hundreds of growth-strangling regulations have been eliminated; the Obamacare individual mandate is gone; Neil Gorsuch got confirmed, along with a record number of circuit court judges in a president’s first year; tensions with North Korea have relaxed; nearly 3 million jobs have been added, more than 20 percent of them in manufacturing (!) and construction; consumer confidence is at a 17-year high; unemployment is at an 18-year low; ISIS is silent; and 17 American hostages have returned home.
Against this furious pace of boxes checked and promises kept, Democrats are accomplishing close to nothing – which is understandable, given that they do not control either house of Congress. But the larger problem is one of messaging caused by that structural reality: With no weapons for hunting, it is hard to produce red meat. In other words, when you hold no levers of power, you cannot generate concrete accomplishments upon which campaign talking points are based. This is the essential component of our current political climate that undermines hopes of a “blue wave” in November. In any environment, Trump’s skill at promotion and larger-than-life persona would consume the lion’s share of oxygen; in this context, it will be difficult for Democrats to make their “Resistance” agenda look like much more than heel-nipping and sour grapes – not least because it amounts to heel-nipping and sour grapes.
Trump’s outreach to the black vote – through such figures as Diamond and Silk, and reflected in vote totals in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – preceded the involvement of Kanye and his wife. And it has a good chance of sufficient success to remake the electoral landscape. The Democratic Party is, right now, in a historically weak position. A weak party can ill-afford to take for granted the most loyal component of its own base, but that status is so long-standing that the moment for a checkmate may well be at hand.