Trump hasn't come close to 'draining the swamp.' Can Democrats hijack his message?

• Oct 16, 2018

How many stories about politics these days open with an anecdote about some new line being crossed?

How many stories about politics these days open with an anecdote about some new line being crossed? 

At a televised debate Monday night between two Arizona congresswomen running to replace Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Republican Rep. Martha McSally accused Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of supporting treason — a federal crime that carries the death penalty. Sinema’s offense? When appearing on a libertarian’s radio show 15 years ago, Sinema did not object when her host asked her how she’d feel if he joined the Taliban.

The striking thing is that McSally and Sinema are far apart on a wide range of real issues that matter to every Arizonan, including taxes, healthcare and immigration. They don’t need to mud wrestle; the contrast between the two couldn’t be more clear — McSally is campaigning as a Trumpist, and Sinema as a moderate Democrat. 

So why are we here? Scarcely a day goes by without some new low being reached. In fact, Michael Avenatti, the spotlight-seeking attorney for porn actress Stormy Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford), argues that this sort of ugly, antagonistic politics is the only way to play the game today. “You’ve got to engage in smash-mouth politics if you’re going to beat Donald Trump,” Avenatti said Monday in an interview with the Hill

I know that plenty of readers blame us in the news media for the slide in discourse, given how we pounce on each new outrage. But right back atcha people — candidates go negative because the attacks get results. If they didn’t, and if voters instead punished candidates who engaged in (or whose allies engaged in) personal attacks on the campaign trail, then we’d see a lot more positive, issue-based races.

Nevertheless, the public is not happy with the state of politics today. The intense polarization seems to rankle everyone who’s not a die-hard partisan. And that discontent may very well fuel the fourth “wave” election in 12 years. Every midterm election since 2006 has led to a sweeping change of control in one or both houses of Congress, a sure sign that something is fundamentally wrong in the system.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), chairman of the Democrats’ Democracy Reform Task Force, argues that the waves have been powered by a widespread sense among ordinary citizens that they are being ignored by their government. “In some ways, [President] Trump is the piece of driftwood that came in on this wave of anger,” Sarbanes said. “He was a message.”

In Sarbanes’ view, the public remains deeply skeptical about the ability to change what’s perceived as a rigged system. That was Sen. Bernie Sanders’ message in 2016 too as well as Trump’s, so clearly it resonates with voters on both sides of the political aisle.

That’s why Democrats have floated a blueprint for political and governing reforms they would pass if they regained the majority. In essence, it’s an Augean Stables agenda: tighten conflict-of-interest rules for government officials and the limits on lobbyists’ campaign contributions; attack gerrymandering and strengthen voting rights; and clean up campaign finance.

In other words, it’s the House Democrats’ version of “drain the swamp,” translated into weedy policy details. 

Sexy, it’s not. This isn’t a manifesto about Democratic Party values like the House GOP’s “Contract With America” in 1994. Nevertheless, Sarbanes said, passing these bills would show Democrats’ willingness to take on the “special interests that have been rigging the system,” boosting their credibility on other priorities such as healthcare, climate change and taxes.

Not that the blueprint is merely an appetizer before the main legislative course. The issues involved are important ones, including how much leeway states should have over who can vote, what limits there should be on political speech by interest groups, and whether the public should offer tax dollars to help candidates who eschew big-dollar donors.

I’m not persuaded, though, that the public honestly wants to drain the swamp. It’s clear that Trump and his allies use that phrase simply to mean replacing Democrats in Washington with Republicans. With Trump in power and his favorability rating still low by historical standards, will voters now be content just to swap majorities? Or does the public really want to change the process itself?

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You can read the full article by Jon Healey here

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Jon Healey

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