To beat Trump, Democrats must practice a politics of modesty

“It is a great advantage to a president,” said the 30th of them, “and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.” Or, Calvin Coolidge would say today, a great woman. While today’s incumbent advertises himself as an “extremely stable genius” and those who would replace him promise national transformation, attention should be paid to the granular details of presidential politics, which suggest that a politics of modesty might produce voting changes where they matter, and at least 270 electoral votes for a Democrat.

If the near future resembles the immediate past, which it often does, the Democratic nominee in 2020 will be, as the Republican nominee was in 2016, the person favored by the party faction for whom government is more a practical than an ideological concern. For Republicans in 2016, the faction — non-college whites — felt itself a casualty of an economic dynamism that has most benefited people who admire this faction least. In 2020, the decisive Democratic faction in the nomination contest is apt to be, as it was in 2016, African Americans, whose appraisal of government is particularly practical: What will it do regarding health care, employment, schools? For them, packing the Supreme Court, impeaching the president, abolishing the Electoral College and other gesture-promises probably are distractions. African Americans were at least 20% of the vote in 15 of the 2016 primaries, and in all the primaries combined they gave 76% of their votes to Hillary Clinton. This is why Trump did not get a chance to defeat Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who narrowly defeated Clinton among white voters in the primaries. These numbers are from the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, who referred to a 2016 Pew survey that found just 27% of African American Democrats identify as liberal, and a plurality describe themselves as moderate. Some of that plurality surely resent the idea of reparations for slavery as a badge of an irremediable damage. And the importance of ensuring robust African American turnout for Democrats is illustrated by this fact: If in 2004 John Kerry had received as many black votes in Ohio as Barack Obama was to receive in 2008, Kerry would have been the 44th president.

Furthermore, in the 110-day sprint between the end of the Democratic nominating convention in Milwaukee and Election Day, the earliest voting — this is subject to change — begins Sept. 18 in Minnesota and at least one fifth of 2020 voters will probably cast their ballots before Election Day.