Two top Democrats made dangerous blunders over the past few weeks that should serve as a warning for politicians opposing Donald Trump.
Former Vice President Joe Biden told college students that Trump’s comments and actions about women were so offensive that if they were in high school, “I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”
In India, Hillary Clinton suggested that her voters in 2016 were from “optimistic, diverse and dynamic” venues, while Trump appealed to voters who “didn’t like black people getting rights” and who “don’t like women getting jobs.”
There was a backlash: When you insult voters you may need someday, they probably aren’t going to vote for you; and when you mud-wrestle with pigs, the pigs enjoy it.
Biden, who immediately heard from friends and family, quickly realized the error of his impulsive threat and apologized. “I shouldn’t have said what I said,” he explained. “I don’t want to get down in the mosh pit with this guy.”
Other Democrats will be similarly tempted when insulted by something Trump has done or said, sometimes viciously.
That became evident in the 2016 Republican primaries, when Trump repeatedly slandered his opponents. Marco Rubio decided to respond in kind. He ridiculed Trump’s physical appearance, even suggesting a lack of sexual prowess. It backfired. “My kids were embarrassed by it,” the Florida senator said, and “if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.”
The porn star Stormy Daniels recently said in a “60 Minutes” interview that when she had an affair with Trump a dozen years ago, she spanked him with a magazine that featured him. There was a private suggestion among a couple of Democrats to ridicule him with a reference to the old pop band, “Spanky and Our Gang.” Bad idea. Leave that to late-night comedian Stephen Colbert.
There are legitimate criticisms of Trump’s policies, personnel choices, temperament and integrity. These should be pointed and sharp without getting in the pit.
Hillary Clinton’s remarks should be cause for greater concern. During the 2016 campaign, she derided half of Trump’s followers as “deplorables.” Her speech in India created a field day for Fox News and Republican campaigns that are trying to tie her remarks to Democrats like Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who is running for re-election in a state that Trump easily carried in 2016.
The right-wing response is a cheap shot, but Clinton’s remarks reflect a condescension too prevalent among some Democrats, who convey a disdain for less educated, non-urban Trump voters as ignorant, prejudiced rubes.
That’s a problem. It turns out that 2016 Election Day exit polls were flawed, exaggerating the number of college-educated voters and undercounting working-class whites, as Tom Edsall has convincingly written, based on data and experts. More reliable than the exit-poll data is a recent Pew Research Center survey that estimated that 44 percent of the 2016 electorate was white working class.
To be sure, there are significant numbers of misogynists and especially racists in the Trump coalition. I went to fewer than a dozen Trump rallies in the presidential campaign and heard racial epithets at each one. Trump has pandered to racial prejudices for years, and continues to do so as president.
But there were many non-bigots who voted for him, venting their anxieties and frustrations, feeling that elites - politicians, personified by Clinton, academics, the media, Wall Street - looked down on them. They relished that Trump was giving those elites hell.
If Democrats are to score big in the midterms this November, they must capture some of these voters. If they don’t, they’ll lose incumbents in Missouri, West Virginia, Indiana and elsewhere.
The focus on the Democrats’ battle to win a majority in the House is on suburban districts. But to achieve the necessary two dozen or more victories, they will have to win in districts like one in Maine that is rural and working class, or like one in small-town southern New Jersey, or in downstate Illinois, or in California’s Central Valley.
Looking ahead to 2020, if Trump runs for re-election, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin will be must-win states for Democrats. The Pew survey indicates that Clinton got 28 percent of the white working-class vote in 2016; in 2012, Obama won 36 percent of these voters. If Clinton had matched Obama with this group, she would have won those three states.
There are valuable lessons for Democrats, if they heed them: Don’t get in the gutter with Trump and get over a mindset that tells voters they are not part of an “optimistic, diverse and dynamic” America.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.