Byron York: Will Democrats make it about Trump — again?

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 8, 2022

There is a consensus that the Democratic Party is in trouble with midterm elections seven months away. The polls say it, the issues say it and history says it: The coming election is the type of election that the party in power loses big. And to some Democrats, only one man can save the party from disaster: Donald Trump.

Of course, many Democrats have tried to make Trump the issue for the last six years. But after last November’s Virginia governor election — in which the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, tried very hard to make about Trump, only to lose to Republican Glenn Youngkin — it was thought that Democrats might be getting over their Trump-mania, at least when the former president is not on the ballot himself.

But no. A new story in Politico bears the headline: “Dems have an opening for a midterm villain. Donald Trump, you’re hired!” The article reports that many Democrats, with the issues not going their way and with their own base suffering from a lack of enthusiasm, believe that Trump, along with a few fringe GOP members of the House, “are giving Democrats just the political foil they’ve been looking for as virtually everything else has gone the Republicans’ way.”

“We still have a villain,” Democratic Rep. Scott Peters told Politico. “We’ll have to remind people of what that was like.” That means focusing the midterm congressional campaigns on Trump, and also focusing on some other figures — GOP Reps. Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz — whom Democrats would like to make the faces of the Republican Party. “I mean, do you want to hand the keys to the government to these folks?” another Democrat, Rep. Dan Kildee, asked Politico. “They’re scary. They’re nuts.”

As for Trump himself, many Democrats have been heartened by a recent ruling in a civil case in which a U.S. District Court judge in California, David Carter, declared that Trump had “likely committed” crimes in the Jan. 6 matter. “The illegality of the plan was obvious,” Carter wrote, referring to Trump’s desire to have then-Vice President Mike Pence rule out some electoral votes when Congress met to certify the 2020 election results.

It is impossible to overstate the excitement with which some Democrats met Judge Carter’s ruling. It turbocharged their already strong desire to see the former president charged with a crime, any crime — Democrats are not particular. The desire is so strong that people around President Joe Biden are leaking the news that Biden would like to see Trump charged. “As recently as late last year, Mr. Biden confided to his inner circle that he believed former President Donald J. Trump was a threat to democracy and should be prosecuted, according to two people familiar with his comments,” The New York Times reported over the weekend. The point of the leak is to put pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland to OK some sort of charge against Trump.

One problem with the plan is that Judge Carter’s ruling was actually kind of flimsy. Justice Department prosecutors, who have to take into consideration the possibility of losing any case they might bring, will have to weigh that. The second problem is that the Democratic pressure campaign is entirely political — remember that the Democrats’ reason for forming the Jan. 6 committee and getting its findings out in the next few months is to enhance Democratic chances in the midterms. And the third problem is having the Justice Department bring a political case against Trump under pressure from Democratic activists is the kind of thing that might fire up Republican voters. It all comes with a pretty high possibility of backfiring.

And then there are the actual issues. Inflation, inflation, inflation — the dramatic increase in the cost of living in the last year, which appears set to continue the rest of this year, is clearly the most important issue in the midterms. Biden and his party can try to call it “Putin’s price hike,” but the reality is that voters are most likely going to blame the party in control of Congress. Then there are other issues, like the greater economy, crime and border security, all of which do not look good for Democrats. And then there is the so-called “generic ballot,” in which Republicans have the lead in the question of which party voters will support for their own representatives in the House.

So now, Democrats propose to make the midterms about Trump. After the Virginia election, a disappointed Democratic official in the state said, “I think we spend entirely too much time talking about Donald Trump and not articulating not only our vision for the future but spending time genuinely connecting with people and with their needs.”

A lot of Democrats were thinking that way just a few months ago. Now their anti-Trump instinct has kicked in again — they don’t seem to be able to control it — and they again think that if they just hit Trump hard enough, if they just talk about him long enough, if they just make him the major focus of their campaigns, they can ride the Trump train to victory. We’ll see.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.