Arnon Mishkin: Trump has set a trap for his Dem opponents – And they’re falling for it

The two nights of Democratic presidential candidate debates in Detroit this week looked like a competition to prove which contender is the most unlike President Trump – and that could be their downfall.

Trump has shown he is a political genius by inserting himself into the Democratic nomination battle with his frequent tweets and disparaging statements about the candidates. By doing this, he has been able to goad the Democratic candidates into going to extremes to differentiate themselves from him.

The competition to become Mr. or Ms. Un-Trump will make it harder for the eventual Democratic nominee to win the support of swing voters and former Trump supporters that is crucial to winning the general election.


By any standard measure, Trump is fighting an uphill battle for four more years in the White House. While he has a loyal base and strong support among Republican voters, he appeals to only a minority of independents and almost no Democrats, despite the continued strength of our economy.

But for mysterious reasons, the Democrats seem to be following Trump’s playbook – and sailing off-course. By letting Trump push them farther and farther left, the Democrats are making it much easier for Trump to win reelection by enabling him to appeal to centrist voters.  


Politically, Trump appears at a disadvantage because he uses his rallies, tweets and government actions to shore up his political base instead of trying to generate enthusiasm among lukewarm supporters and voters who don’t know who they will support in 2020.


The conventional wisdom has been that a Democratic candidate could win simply by occupying the non-Trump space on the political spectrum. Under this theory, Democrats just need to nominate a person opposed to the president’s most unpopular positions and the candidate can start packing to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Like a master puppeteer, Trump pulls the strings and the Democratic presidential candidates are forced to pivot to any topic he tweets about. He sets their daily talking points – they don’t.  

For example, the least popular element of the Trump crackdown on illegal immigration has been the separation of children of migrants from their parents. Therefore, many people think all a Democrat would need to do is oppose those separations.

The least popular element of efforts to repeal ObamaCare is the fear that Americans with preexisting medical conditions would lose their ability to get health insurance. So many people think all a Democrat would need to do is to focus on reminding people that ObamaCare protects those Americans and promising to keep the program in place.

Another highly unpopular position of President Trump was his call for four far-left Democratic congresswomen to go back to where they came from – even though all are U.S. citizens and three were born in America. Many people think all a Democrats would need to do is voice opposition to the extreme notion of deporting people who criticize the president.

And most recently, Trump has been called a “racist” for his attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and for criticizing conditions in Baltimore. Many think all a Democrat would need to do would be to focus on opposition to Trump’s statements that have been criticized as being “racist.”

The problem is that many of the Democratic presidential contenders haven’t just countered Trump’s most extreme positions with moderate ones – they have embraced far-left extreme positons on the opposite end of Trump.

That leaves voters with a choice between two extremes – Trump or the Democratic anti-Trumps. What’s often been called the “sensible center,” where many voters feel most comfortable, has been abandoned by both Trump and most of his opponents.

In fact, the leftward tilt of the Democrats is so strong that many of the candidates in the debate Wednesday night – Biden being the notable exception – turned their fire on the still-popular former President Barack Obama. To hear these Democrats tell it, you’d think Obama botched his time in office because he was too conservative.

For example in this week’s Democratic debates, many of the candidates said the only way to stop the separations of migrant children from their parents is to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings. Instead of focusing on the horrifying pictures of children in holding pens and how to solve that problem, these Democrats provide evidence for the claim that they’re for “open borders.”

On health care, Trump supports a court challenge to ObamaCare that may result in the elimination of coverage of preexisting conditions. Instead of focusing just on that issue, many candidates have responded by proposing new types of national health insurance plans, with the most extreme calling for abolishing private health insurance.

The “Medicare-for-all” plan by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and supported by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. would end employer-provided health insurance and force everyone to enroll in a single-payer government system, whether they liked it or not.  

One thing that Democrats should have learned is that every time they’ve proposed a new type of health care plan they’ve suffered historic losses at the polls – whether it was HillaryCare (which didn’t pass) in 1994, or ObamaCare in 2010.

But rather than focus on preserving ObamaCare, which now is a net-positive for the Democrats, many presidential candidates are taking the Trump bait and proposing a multitrillion-dollar takeover of health insurance that is guaranteed to sharply raise taxes and be opposed by millions of voters.

And finally, on Trump’s tweets, the Democratic are responding to them and letting the tweets determine the daily news cycle. Like a master puppeteer, Trump pulls the strings and the Democratic presidential candidates are forced to pivot to any topic he tweets about. He sets their daily talking points – they don’t.

Some say it’s “Trump Derangement Syndrome” – others think it’s just Trump’s unrecognized political genius.

Trump has the solid support of his base. And his strategy is to ensure members of his base are motivated to go to the polls in November 2020. While some think he’s ceded voters in the political center to the Democrats, he is moving the Democrats to the left so that he ensures they will only appeal to their extreme-left base.


And guess what? Trump’s base is very likely larger than that of the Democrats. And that’s Trump’s genius. He goads his opponents and they keep falling for it.

In the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali coined a name for the technique of luring your opponent to attack ineffectively until he grows weary and then coming back with devastating blows to win. Ali called it rope-a-dope – and that appears to be exactly what Trump is doing now.