Pinkerton: Democrat Strategist Visits Trump Country to Find the Way to Beat Trump

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AP Photo/Michael Conroy

The headline in The New York Times is nothing if not declarative: “The Republican Party Is Doomed.”  And the first lines of the opinion piece read, “The 2020 election will be transformative like few in our history. It will end with the death of the Republican Party as we know it.” 

These provocative words come from veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. Over the decades, Greenberg has worked for left-of-center political figures here and around the world, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela. And oh yes, Greenberg has a new book out, guaranteed to float the noodle of New York Times readers: RIP GOP: How the New America Is Dooming the Republicans. 

Okay, that’s one man’s opinion, leavened with wishful thinking—and propped up by the Times. ,Indeed, there’s never a shortage of Democratic operatives eager to spew doom-and-gloom on the GOP.

Yet still, Greenberg can’t be quite so easily dismissed, because he’s not your typical Democratic politico—and he has an interesting record of insight into Trump voters and their political ancestry. 

You see, Greenberg is more of a Franklin D. Roosevelt-type Democrat; that is, he’s actually interested in the working- and middle-classes and their kitchen-table-type concerns. And that FDR-ish perspective helps him see the appeal of Donald Trump, who carried much of the historic New Deal coalition in 2016—that is, Southern white Protestants and Northern Catholics. Furthermore, Greenberg maintains a certain detachment from trendier Democrats, who are more fascinated by the exotica of race, gender, and carbon dioxide. 

Furthermore, an admirer of Greenberg’s at the Times, columnist Michelle Goldberg, bolsters his credibility by pointing to Hillary Clinton’s 2017 memoir, in which the failed Democratic nominee records that during the 2016 election season, Greenberg “thought my campaign was too upbeat on the economy, too liberal on immigration, and not vocal enough about trade.”  

So we can see, from his Democratic vantage point, Greenberg was fully mindful of the populist political currents that carried Trump to a surprise victory in hard-hit Michigan and other blue-collar states—and thus carried him to the White House. Indeed, as he writes for the Times, in 2016, affluent “blue dot” Democrats, clustered on the coasts, were oblivious to red-state rage: 

The elites who mostly live in America’s dynamic metropolitan areas were satisfied with America’s economic progress after the financial crash, but overall it helped make Donald Trump electable.  He understood how dissatisfied the country was with the status quo.

Of course, just because Greenberg was right about 2016 doesn’t mean he’ll be right about 2020. Yet still, his perspective is worth pondering—if only with an eye to making sure he is proven wrong. 

Greenberg has, in fact, been studying meat-and-potatoes populists for a long time. Way back in 1985, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election, he traveled to Macomb County, Michigan—a sprawl of suburbs, just north of Detroit, chock full of United Auto Workers—to conduct focus groups and polling research on why so many Democrats had become disaffected from their party.  

For most of the 20th century, Macomb had, in fact, been a Democratic bastion; in the 1960 presidential election, it gave John F. Kennedy 63 percent of its vote. And yet by 1984, Macomb had flipped, giving Reagan 66 percent.  Yet interestingly, Democrats running for lesser office—not tarred with the brush of “San Francisco Democrat”-type national liberalism—also won in Macomb. 

Still, the erosion of blue-collar support in such a large county—the third-largest in the Wolverine State—was alarming to the Democratic hierarchy, and so Greenberg was commissioned to figure out what was happening. In 1985, he published a report, observing that folks in Macomb distrusted the Democrats on issues such as crime and welfare; moreover, they liked Reagan because he stood up for “the little guy.” Yet at the same time, they mistrusted the Republican Party as a whole, and still tended to think of themselves as Democrats. Greenberg was thus inspired to coin the evocative phrase, “Reagan Democrat.”

As a result of Macomb’s partisan fluidity, Democratic candidates who could come across as at least somewhat centrist could still win there. And that was how Bill Clinton, campaigning on non-liberal “New Democrat” issues such as crimefighting and welfare reform, carried Macomb in 1996.  

Even Barack Obama won the county in both 2008 and 2012. Of course, Obama got a lot of help when Mitt Romney published an op-ed in The New York Times, headlined, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Romney was referring, of course, to the Big Three automakers, the employers of so many in Macomb—and in his dogmatic economic royalism, he was confirming blue-collar fears about his kind of Republicanism. Needless to say, he lost Michigan by almost 10 points. 

In 2016, Donald Trump was free from such ideological dogmas; unlike Romney, he campaigned on actively helping blue-collar workers. And so Trump not only won Macomb in a landslide, he also carried Michigan for the first time in three decades—as well as, of course, other “blue wall” states. 

For his part, Greenberg has been right there with Trump. Needless to say, he was never a supporter, and yet he was a close observer of Reagan Democrats who, over the years, had become MAGA Men and Women.  

After the ’16 election, Greenberg returned once again to Macomb for more focus groups; in March 2017, he wrote:  

These voters have not regretted their vote for Trump. There was no “buyer’s remorse.” None of the 35 participants in the course of the focus group discussion or in their private post-group post- cards to President Trump pulled back from their vote, which is an impressive indication of the strength of Trump’s support. They are clear about why they voted for him and pray he keeps his promises and succeeds.

Okay, so far, so good, Trump-wise. Still, just two months into the Trump administration, Greenberg ventured that the new president’s support could be weakened—and as a Democratic partisan, of course, he was eager to do just that. He found that the strongest attack line was the argument that Trump’s government was full of “million-dollar campaign donors, [bailed out] bankers from Goldman Sachs and people who used undocumented workers in their homes.”  

Greenberg speculated that if Trump could be portrayed in Romney-royalist terms, Macomb folks might be open to a Democratic challenger offering a gritty populist message.  (As an aside, just the other day, another Times columnist, David Leonhardt, picked up Greenberg’s theme; writing from a strictly partisan perspective, Leonhardt urged Democratic presidential hopefuls to get off fringe issues, such as as slavery reparations, and get back to attacking Trump in populist terms: “They should be casting Trump as a plutocrat in populist’s clothes, who has used the presidency to enrich himself and other wealthy insiders at the expense of hard-working middle-class families.” It remains to be seen, of course, if the Democrats are interested, since they do seem to love those fringe issues.) 

The following year, Greenberg visited Macomb yet again, and in May 2018 he once more updated his findings. By now, he had detected a faltering in Trump’s support, especially among women under age 45.  

To be sure, some might be tempted to accuse Greenberg of tilting his findings to give the Democrats something to cheer about. Yet in fact, in the 2018 midterm elections, Michigan’s Democrats were cheered; their gubernatorial and senatorial candidates each won Macomb, albeit narrowly.

Of course, the 2018 midterms do not prove a thing about the 2020 general election; last year’s blue wave could still hit next year’s red wall. Indeed, every day brings news of just how far the Democratic presidential hopefuls are moving to the left, on issues ranging from guns to climate change to border security—and these leftward lurches could make any of them un-electable.  

Or, as another possibility, Democrats could heed Greenberg’s advice and seek to recover their potent FDR heritage—enough of it, at least—thereby possibly turning the ’20 election into something far different.   

Yes, Greenberg seems more than a little overwrought when he opines that the Republican Party is at risk of crashing and shattering. (Not that Michelle Goldberg and her like-minded colleagues at the Times would ever wish to argue.)  

Almost certainly, both parties are going to be around for a long time to come—even though they might continue to change their positions.    

As of this writing, the only thing we can be sure of is that Middle Americans—in Macomb and elsewhere—will be the deciding vote next year. Based on changing circumstances, they have shifted before, and they can shift again.  So no candidate, in either party, should be complacent about Middle America’s partisan loyalty. 

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