Culture vs. Policy in the Democratic Race for President: Two Theories of the Case

Every presidential election is a reaction to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

After the cynicism of Nixon, we got the earnestness of Jimmy Carter. After the fecklessness of Carter, we got the movie-star steadiness of Ronald Reagan and the international experience of George H.W. Bush. After the aloofness of Bush, we got the “I feel your pain” of Bill Clinton. After the scandals of Clinton, we got the moral rectitude of George W. Bush. After the incuriousness of the younger Bush, we got Professor Barack Obama. And after the coolness of Obama, we got the hot reality TV populism of Donald Trump.

So now Democrats are faced with a choice for their presidential nominee. Who is the right person to serve as a counterbalance to this unprecedented president?

Some 17 months before Election Day 2020, there are two primary theories of the case: Fight Trump based on culture or fight him on policy.

The cultural argument, embodied most fully by former Vice President Joe Biden, goes something like this. Trump poses an existential threat to our Republic. He represents something alien to our nation, which must be rejected. We must return to a politics where the opposition is not the enemy. Given this framework, it’s easy to see why Biden would be open to working with segregationists or even say that Republicans will work with him once Trump is gone (even if he disagrees with them on a host of issues). If Biden becomes the nominee, this would allow him to speak clearly to the 60 percent of the nation that isn’t Trump’s core base. And it would open the door to a raft of policy proposals where Republicans and Democrats can work together to restore our nation’s spirit — think infrastructure and education as the starting place.

The policy argument, embodied most fully by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (and adopted by many of the other top-tier Democrats) stands in stark contrast. To this way of thinking, Trump is not an exception but the natural destination of the conservative movement (and by extension the Republican Party). This means attacks on reproductive rights. Attacks on immigrants. Strict constitutionalist judges. Given this framework, it’s easy to see why Warren has a “plan for this” that stands in opposition to conservative policies at every step. And if she were to become the nominee, it would lead to a bright-line choice between deep-red conservatives and deep-blue Democrats leaving the middle (if there is one) with a major conundrum. These policy proposals may not be practical at the moment, but the goal for them is to realign our nation’s politics.

At this point in the election cycle, it’s by no means clear which framework will win out.

There’s clearly merit to both approaches. Trump is an exception to the American tradition of practical politics, and he has adopted the policy preferences of conservatives, whether out of principle or pure politics.

Heading into the first debate next week, this understanding of Trump – that it’s not either/or but both/and – leaves open a window of opportunity for the candidate who can join the two frameworks together.

So that leads to a third avenue. The candidate who can make a compelling case that Trump is an exception to the American political experience and can put forward policies that will restore our nation will capture the moment and use the debate as a springboard to electoral success.

Does this candidate exist? Who knows, but with 24 men and women in the running, there must be one. The moment is big. The lights are bright.

Crafting this message is no easy task. But when we hear this argument, we’ll know it, and it will create a playbook for how to become the counterbalance to one Donald J. Trump.


Scott Gerber is the former communications director for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and a partner and co-founder of Vrge Strategies, a strategic communication firm that specializes in storytelling and the intersection of technology, policy and government.

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