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Democratic candidates stay focused on policy issues as cable news sticks to Trump

Hopeful candidates are having conversations with voters on health care and taxes.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had a star turn in last week's news cycle. So far, however, voters say they have more pressing concerns. CREDIT: GETTY / MARK WILSON
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had a star turn in last week's news cycle. So far, however, voters say they have more pressing concerns. CREDIT: GETTY / MARK WILSON

While America has been living in — and anesthetized to — this never-a-slow-news-day era for quite a while now, there was nevertheless something pulse-quickening about last week’s episodes of our reality-television presidency. Paced primarily by the ongoing legal sagas of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and longtime Trump consigliere Michael Cohen, the flow of the news cycle turned pyroclastic, with Twitter pundits proclaiming it to be a historic week for the Trump White House and leaving the editors of the New York Times desperate to find a new way of saying that President Donald Trump is “increasingly isolated.”

Against this backdrop, it can be hard to remember that we are both in an election year and that this election is not actually happening in the Twitter mentions of political journalists, where one might presume a consensus has been reached: the Mueller-Manafort-Cohen content mill is providing the richest grist for Democrats hoping to retake one or more congressional majorities.

While Democratic party leaders have already signaled that Trump’s corruption will be an issue this fall, the siren song of making impeachment central to their election year message grows louder. At least one Democratic mega-donor, Tom Steyer, continues to rattle about putting the promise to impeach the president on every Democratic candidate’s lips.

Nevertheless, a news story from USA Today’s Erin Kelly, arriving last week with a lot less clatter and bang, more capably illuminates an opening for Democrats on the campaign trail:

Obamacare is more popular with American voters than the Republican-enacted tax cuts, according to a new Fox News Poll.

Slightly more than half of voters – 51 percent – had a favorable opinion of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

In contrast, only 40 percent of voters had a favorable view of the 2017 tax cuts championed by congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, according to the Aug. 19-21 poll of more than 1,000 registered voters.

That’s right: It seems that even with all the hype kicked up by Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort (and David Pecker, and Allen Weisselberg, and so on), the real opportunities for Democrats come from remaining laser-focused on some basic policy issues where most voters are on their side. And given cable news’ obsessive focus on the legal entanglements of those in Trump’s orbit, the fact that Democratic candidates have largely hewed to this more simple, substantive approach on the stump makes this one of the year’s most under-covered political stories.

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Which isn’t to say such stories don’t exist. Last week, as the nation came down from their courtroom contact high, McClatchy’s Alex Roarty found evidence of Democrats sticking to their script and planning a wave of ads designed to “make the upcoming election about health care and taxes.”

As Patrick McHugh, the executive director of Democratic super PAC Priorities USA tells Roarty, “What Democrats need to do, because Trump is all encompassing on cable news and earned media, is continue to talk about consequences of health care and the tax bill.” Democrats, he says, “can’t rely” on the media to carry that message in a news environment so suffused with the controversies that Trump faces — as well as the ones he gins up for his own purposes on Twitter.

This is not, by any means, a new strategy. Over at the Washington Post, The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent has been assiduously chronicling the fact that Democrats on the campaign trail have been living in a different world than the one depicted on the 24-hour news channels. Out on the stump, Trump’s general unpopularity is palpable and is helping to drive up Democratic turnout, but as Sargent notes, while the “intensity of this outpouring against Trump is undoubtedly driven in part by Trump’s scandals,” Democratic candidates have not been “particularly focused on Trump in their own campaigns.” Per Sargent:

In other words, Trump is doing part of the work for Democrats without their help, allowing them to focus on things such as improving health care or fortifying social insurance (as Conor Lamb did) or even on hyper-local issues (as many state legislative candidates have done). If Democrats are running against Trump, it’s subtle: They are trying to project calm, stability, decency and respect for tolerance and the rule of law, drawing an implicit contrast with Trump, and are challenging their Republican foes when they dabble in Trumpist xenophobia and veiled racism, as opposed to making it overtly all about the president.

In a separate piece, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s Jessica Post provided Sargent with greater detail about how Trump’s relative unpopularity both enables Democratic hopefuls to exploit the anger he generates among the Democratic base, while simultaneously freeing them from the need to constantly make hay about whatever the much-hyped Trump controversy-of-the-week is:

Democratic voters are “furious and want an outlet. So they’ll knock on the doors of other Democrats who are also furious. And then Democrats are turning out in huge numbers,” Post says. “Meanwhile, the candidate is talking to independents about local issues that really matter to their community, disconnected from Washington.” The result has been a “rebalancing,” in which districts that went heavily for Trump in 2016, washing out Dem local candidates, are now seeing quality Dem candidates reassert the Democratic brand.

As the Cohen/Manafort stories continue to play out, there are sure to be further alarm bells on cable news, as well as the sense — however true it may be — that some unseen noose is tightening around Trump’s neck. In some quarters, this could fuel the argument that a Trump-centric media narrative is where Democrats will find their path to electoral victory.

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But the big shifts in public opinion continue to be on these bread-and-butter issues. The same week a Fox News poll discovered that Obamacare was more popular than the Republican tax plan, a Reuters-Ipsos poll found that approximately 70 percent of Americans would back a “Medicare for all” plan — that includes 85 percent of Democrats surveyed as well as 52 percent of Republicans — thus moving the policy firmly into the mainstream.

Meanwhile, as the Huffington Post’s Ariel Edwards-Levy points out, despite the fact that the legal dramas of Trump and his inner circle continue to clog the news, actual voters have not yet latched on to these stories:

In other words, some needles are twitching while others lie dormant. Despite the hue and cry over Manafort and Cohen, the salience of pocketbook issues — health care costs and taxes — continues to provide the more fertile territory on which to grow a Democratic campaign.