It’s not just that US President Donald Trump and his supporters ignore truth. Since Karl Rove’s Swift Boating of war hero John Kerry to boost draft dodger George W Bush, Republican campaigns have shown an extraordinary talent for cynically turning their own candidates’ weaknesses into attack lines against opponents.
Recall a candidate who admitted offenses ranging from sexual assault to fraud to racial discrimination with serial bankruptcies that stiffed creditors and investors dubbing his opponent “Crooked Hillary.” Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg stand particularly vulnerable to Republican political jujitsu.
“Joe Biden’s son made $50,000 a month from Ukraine while his father was vice-president!” Never mind that Trump’s litany of corruption flows through his children. They run his businesses for his benefit – no blind trust or independent oversight for this president – and make no effort to distance those enterprises from government. His daughter and son-in-law pursue their commercial interests while occupying White House jobs for which they have no apparent qualifications beyond their family link to the Oval Office occupant.
Like Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, Hunter Biden’s seat on the Burisma board illustrates someone powerful enjoying a break regular folks wouldn’t get. Unlike Clinton’s virtually harmless e-mail fiasco, Hunter Biden working for a Ukrainian enterprise while his father worked on US government Ukraine policy was patently wrong: it was a mistake for vice-president Biden and the Barack Obama administration to allow it, and candidate Biden multiplies the mistake by failing to admit that it was a lapse in judgment that demands an apology, not a defense.
“Elizabeth Warren wants to take away your health care! So does Bernie Sanders!” Of course, it’s the Trump Justice Department that has gone to court to overturn the Affordable Care Act and throw millions of people off their current health-insurance plans. It’s Trump who has used his presidential powers to neuter Obamacare and repeatedly implored Republican legislators to overturn the law, actions that have made health insurance less available and less affordable for millions of Americans.
Supporting “Medicare for all,” as Warren and Sanders do, likely means eliminating private health insurance that currently covers the vast majority of Americans. Whether Medicare for all is sound public policy begs serious discussion, as the Democratic presidential candidates have proved in their debates. But what’s beyond debate is that Warren and Sanders aim to to provide health care as a right, expanding coverage to all Americans. Yes, they want to end private health insurance – in order to replace it with something they believe is better. When Republicans try to take away health insurance, they don’t want to replace it at all.
As a gay man, Buttigieg presents countless jujitsu openings to a sexual predator and serial philanderer who specializes in cheap shots. “Imagine that the president of the United States who sits down with other world leaders is a [fill in your chosen derogatory term for homosexual; be assured Trump will use them all]. That would make our country a laughingstock!” Never mind that Trump’s conduct in office flouts norms of honesty and duty and causes world leaders to laugh in his face and behind his back.
And when the going gets tough, count on Trump to embrace what Kenneth Sherrill, a leading political scientist on LGBTQ issues, calls “the ick factor” and clear up any mysteries of gay male sex. “You don’t want a guy like that shaking your hand or kissing your baby,” the guy who paid hush money to a porn star will warn. “Some of our strongest allies might not even let him – and his husband – into their country.”
As an American, my critiques have nothing to do with policy and everything to do with vulnerability. People who believe in the principles that have served our nation so well over the past two and a half centuries must agree that beating Trump is the most important thing in 2020. We can be under no illusions that Trump will not make reprehensible and scurrilous attacks on any opponent he faces. But the United States cannot afford a fatally flawed candidate who plausibly allows Trump to project his worst qualities on to them. Democrats must not invite Republican jujitsu to defeat them.
Muhammad Cohen has worked on Democratic campaigns, and wrote the Campaign Outsider column for Asia Times in 2008.