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Trump is a master programmer. Democrats need a 2020 script

Often when presidents lose the House of Representatives or the Senate in the midterms, they sound somber whe...

Posted: Nov 8, 2018 6:13 AM
Updated: Nov 8, 2018 6:13 AM

Often when presidents lose the House of Representatives or the Senate in the midterms, they sound somber when they speak to the press.

President Bill Clinton stepped in front of the cameras in 1994 and promised to work across the aisle with the new Republican Congress on issues like welfare reform. In 2006, after Democrats regained control of Congress in the aftermath of a disastrous war, President George W. Bush admitted that it was a "thumping." Four years later, President Barack Obama called the 2010 midterms, where Republicans retook control of the House, a "shellacking."

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Not President Trump. Today he did what so many said he shouldn't do. After losing the House to the Democrats, the President announced on Twitter that he had replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions with now-Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who has notably not been sympathetic to the Russia investigation. This was the act of someone digging in for a fight, not preparing to reach out to the other side.

The firing was announced a few hours after his press conference, during which he portrayed the election as a victory for himself and the GOP. (Though John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, informed Sessions of his dismissal earlier in the day.) He stressed the limited number of times that the party of the President gained seats in the Senate. While acknowledging the undeniable reality that Democrats gained control of the House, his preferred topic was the Senate, where the Republicans expanded their majority. In short, he took credit for the victories and separated himself from the defeats.

The playbook remained exactly the same. Although he started with some nods to bipartisanship, congratulating Nancy Pelosi on her victory, he quickly threatened Democrats. Diving deeper into his familiar script, he went after the news media and took shots at reporters like CNN's Jim Acosta for being "rude."

His response should not come as a surprise. If anyone was expecting Trump to admit defeat, they haven't been watching. The President never concedes anything. When confronting failure, his modus operandi is to blame someone else or to shift public attention to issues that work in his favor.

He is like a boxer who never stops throwing punches. With adviser Kellyanne Conway helping him produce endless spin, the President is constantly searching for ways to tell a good story about himself and his White House. Unlike Presidents Clinton, Bush or Obama, President Trump now also counts on a fully matured, national conservative media to back up his stories. After watching primetime host Sean Hannity campaign alongside the President, it should be clear to everyone that there is no wall separating Fox News from the White House.

But in certain respects, the press conference, coming after the midterm defeats, exposes what Democrats will need to do to succeed in 2020. Trump is like the creator of a hit television series, who discovers a formula that works and keeps using the same jokes and dramatic twists.

To challenge a hit television series, the losing strategy is to simply respond with a spinoff.

During the midterms, that is not what House Democrats did. They kept remarkable focus on the issues that mattered to their voters -- such as health care -- and, in the final weeks, as Trump unleashed a fierce white backlash campaign, they largely ignored him. Although the Democrats did not succeed in taking back the Senate, where the map always remained unfavorable, the rest of the night went well.

Democrats regaining control of the House is a significant development. They can now help to shape the agenda, they can conduct investigations and oversight and they can check Republicans from moving forward with their own legislation.

At the electoral level, the Democrats demonstrated that they can win again in key midwestern states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, critical to any 2020 bid. And, according to early projections, it looks like House Democrats won the national popular vote by about 7 to 9 points -- a small increase from the 6.8 points Republicans enjoyed in 2010 or 5.7 points in 2014.

The historic number of victorious female Democratic candidates, over 100, and the diversity of the candidate pool offers the party ample reasons to be excited that they better reflect the direction of the nation's population, and this will bolster their ability to compete in purple parts of the electorate. The Democrats increased the number of governors and state legislative bodies under their control, which is crucial for 2020 redistricting. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent argued, the anti-Trump coalition showed that it "can and did mobilize itself, rising up to put a big check on the Trump presidency -- and on Trump himself."

Can the Democrats recreate these outcomes in 2020? The verdict is unclear. The expansion of the Senate majority should be a real warning sign to Democrats that red states have no interest in jumping ship to a Democrat. Nor is it clear that the decisive states in 2016 are now back in Democratic hands. Whatever the national approval ratings say, there are large parts of the country that love Trump.

But that does not mean the President is invulnerable -- nobody is in American politics. And one of the keys for Democrats will be to avoid engaging his familiar script.

The press conference confirmed the President will not change, but it also reminds Democrats they have an advantage -- they know exactly what Trump's message will be into 2020.

Now that Democrats have control of the House, they have a platform to put their own issues forward, to shape the agenda in new ways and to write a different, more appealing script. Whether they take advantage of the moment remains to be seen, but Tuesday finally gave them the airtime to give this a shot.

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