In her opening remarks at last week’s Democratic debate, Kamala Harris got off one of the evening’s best laugh lines. “I plan on focusing on our common issues, common hopes and desires and in that way, unifying our country, winning this election and turning the page for America,” Harris said. “And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News.”
Everyone laughed. But the joke is on the Democrats, if they think the can beat Trump — or unify the country — on “issues.” Americans are sharply divided about immigration, health care and almost every other topic that the Democrats discussed last Thursday. But one one matter, and one matter alone, voters are in very strong agreement: Donald Trump lacks the proper character to be our president.
Consider a Quinnipiac national poll released earlier this year, when 49% of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of the economy while 45% disapproved. Voters were similarly divided about his handling of U.S policy towards North Korea (44% approved, 45% disapproved) and of immigration (40% approved, 58% disapproved).
But when asked if Donald Trump is “a good role model for children,” only 22% of voters said yes, while a whopping 71% said no. Whatever their politics, the vast majority of Americans know that Trump’s behavior is abhorrent and unacceptable.
That’s also how he’s different from his two most recent predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. In Gallup polls, both Obama and Bush were consistently ranked higher in character and leadership than on the issues. For Trump, it’s the inverse: Voters give him better scores on issues than they do on his personal qualities.
Message to Democrats: Focus on character! That’s the one area where they have a clear and unambiguous majority.
Alas, they seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction. Democratic candidates mentioned Trump only 35 times at last week’s debate, down from 61 and 72 times on the first and second nights, respectively, of their previous debate. And when they did so, it was mostly in the form of one-liners that really didn’t get at the heart of the problem.
Witness Harris’ other zinger, while addressing Trump’s trade war with China. “But the bottom line is this: Donald Trump, in office on trade policy, you know, he reminds me of that guy in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” Harris quipped.
Maybe so, but you won’t get Americans to agree on that. According to a CBS News poll last month, 46% of voters give Trump a good job rating for his handling of trade with China and 54% give him a bad rating. So harping on that issue is unlikely to move the needle very far.
Ditto for most of the other matters that divide us. True, as Democrats like to point out, their favored policies generally have more support among voters than Republican platforms do. In an NPR/PBS poll conducted in July, for example, 51% of voters thought free public college was a good idea and 45% called it a bad one; 55% favored a $15 minimum wage, and 42% did not.
But these margins are small, and they pale next to our overwhelming agreement on a much simpler proposition: Donald J. Trump lacks the requisite personal qualities to be president of the United States. That is, or should be, the bottom line for all of the Democrats, going forward from here.
If you need any further reminders about Trump’s character, consider his behavior on the evening of last week’s debate. Addressing a gathering of GOP Congressmen, Trump said Chinese president Xi Jinping would take advantage of “Sleepy” Joe Biden. “Wha? Where am I? Where am I?” Trump said, imagining Biden in a conflict with Xi.
Then he mocked Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, derisively pronouncing every syllable in the South Bend mayor’s name (“Boot-edge-edge”) and joking about Buttigieg’ allegedly small physical stature. “I’ve had him up to here,” Trump jibed, gesturing to his chest in an apparent allusion to Buttigieg’s height.
Such comments have become so routine for Trump that they barely make news any longer. And that’s another reason why the Democrats need to harp upon every crass, bigoted and sadistic thing he says. The message has to be stated and re-stated, over and over again: Such behavior is unworthy of the office of the president. You know it. I know it. The American people know it. So why not say it?
At a 1954 hearing, Army lawyer Joseph Welch famously challenged the lies and smears of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Welch asked. “Have you left no sense of decency?” Trump has already answered that question, many times over. He doesn’t. The only real question is whether the Democrats have the wisdom and the discipline to ask it.
Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools."