Dems have a problem with their democracy argument, not with the Supreme Court


When the Supreme Court ruled Monday that states have no authority to remove Donald Trump from the presidential ballot, it dealt a blow to any Democratic hope of a deus ex machina stroke saving the party from the former president’s reelection bid.

If Democrats are going to stop Trump, they’re going to have to quash him at the ballot box.

For weeks, Democratic officials have argued as much. The finality of the highest court weighing in cemented it.

“It’s pretty clear to me what the former president was trying to do on Jan. 6, and his followers,” Tim Walz, the Democratic governor of Minnesota, told POLITICO. “But I still think in terms of giving the people the chance to vote on this, it’s just the best way to put it to rest.”

But the ruling was significant in another way. It exposed the limitations of a critical component of the Democratic case against Trump: that the ex-president was and is bad for democracy. While the justices did not rule on whether Trump engaged in an insurrection in his effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election, they rejected the effort by his critics to disqualify him on those grounds. It comes at a time where recent polling shows Democrats have struggled to portray Trump as a threat to democratic governance.

A recent CBS News YouGov poll found that only 34 percent of registered voters say democracy and the rule of law will be safe only if Biden wins, just one percentage point more than those who say the same for Trump. That’s an almost even split on an issue that Biden and his advisers have said will animate his campaign.

Whether those results are accepted by Biden’s inner circle is not settled. Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said the reelection effort didn’t “really care” about the ruling. “It’s not been the way we’ve been planning to beat Donald Trump,” Fulks said at an MSNBC event. “Our focus since day one of launching this campaign has been to defeat Donald Trump at the ballot box.” But Mike Donilon, among the president’s closest advisers, told The New Yorker in a rare interview that the campaign’s “focus will become overwhelming on democracy.”

“I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of January 6th,” he said.

It’s possible that over time, and with increased voter interest in the general election and spending on television ads, Democrats can make the issue — and those images — resonate. Trump is far from finished with his legal problems. His criminal trial on charges stemming from hush money payments to a porn star is scheduled to start March 25.

“It will be up to the American people to really focus on who their candidates are, and ensure that candidates who are insurrectionists or would be insurrections are not successful in their electoral pursuits,” said Democratic Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a lead party to the case decided Monday.

She maintained the issue could still be potent in November.

“Americans have time and time again, in swing states and in places where it’s unclear how a vote will go, rejected extremism and upheld our democracy,” Griswold said. “I do believe that will happen in November also.”

But if Jan. 6 and election denialism proved toxic for the candidates who campaigned on it during the midterms, it’s not at all clear the same will be true some two years later.

Today, said Scott Walker, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, Democrats who are still talking about Jan. 6 and challenges to democracy sound to the average voter like they are the ones unable to let go of the past.

“People talking about solutions to” inflation, the economy and border security, Walker said, “versus those making excuses, are the ones who are falling behind. Two years ago, Republicans looked like the ones stuck in the past.”

Or as Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist, put it: “That message resonates with a very, very, very small number of people who religiously watch CNN and MSNBC, and think that because their mindset motivates them, it motivates others.”

He said, “I think it’s a great place for the Republicans to be come November if Democrats want to make the presidential election about quote-unquote democracy, and Republicans want to make it about the border crisis and the economy.”

For Monday, at least, Trump and his Republican base saw it as a definite win. Even Nikki Haley, Trump’s last remaining serious challenger in the primary — and a fierce critic of the former president — told a crowd on Monday that she supported the decision.

“We don’t ever want some elected official in the state, or anybody else saying who can and can’t be on the ballot,” she said.

Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.

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