WASHINGTON ― With Donald Trump’s election messaging changing almost every day, congressional Republicans are struggling to find a central GOP slogan of their own.
Roughly 100 days before the election, Trump and other Republicans are all over the place. Sometimes touting the economy (or the economy that used to be before the coronavirus). Sometimes pitching “law and order” (largely a euphemistic placeholder for culture war items like praising the police and controlling protests). And sometimes latching on to old Democratic stereotypes about socialism and lofty GOP principles of freedom.
Trump himself has tested out a number of negative messages against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. He’s repeatedly called him “Sleepy Joe,” a name that doesn’t seem to have as much of a negative connotation as Trump would like. He’s tried to dig up a case of Biden corruption in Ukraine, only exposing his own presidency’s corruption. And now he’s taken on a new effort to cast Biden as senile, only raising more questions about his own cognitive ability.
Ask Republicans in Congress what the GOP’s central message is, and they’ll struggle to coalesce behind one idea.
“Well, the president will decide what his message for reelection is,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of the more eloquent Republicans in Congress, told HuffPost this week, not seeming to be alarmed that the election is only 100 days away. He said it would probably center around three things: rebuilding the economy, restoring America after the coronavirus and contrasting himself with Biden.
“Vice President Biden is not the strongest candidate that the Democrats have had,” Cole said.
He added that you could also sum it up this way: “This is what I’ve done. This is what I’m going to do. This is why the other guy isn’t ready to be president.”
Those sorts of messages, however, demand a competence and focus that seem beyond Trump.
Presented with the chance himself recently to lay out what a second term would look like during an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump instead delivered a rambling exposition on experience and talent, how he knows Washington better now ― “I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden, I’m President of the United States” ― and how he wouldn’t hire “an idiot like [John] Bolton” again.
But Republicans have spent more than five years pretending Trump is someone he’s not. And they seem to have no plan to give up on the charade now.
Plenty of Republicans had messages they would probably like for Trump to adopt.
Rep. Andy Barr (Ky.) said this election was about “free enterprise, freedom, freedom v. socialism.”
Rep. Glenn Grothman (Wis.) said the central message was “fighting to save America.”
And Rep. Randy Weber (Texas) said it was about “making Americans safe.”
“That means not only just from a physical standpoint, but in the economy,” Weber added.
Before the coronavirus, Trump’s reelection message would have almost certainly been about the economy. During the Trump presidency, the United States did see record lows for unemployment and record highs for the stock market. But that economic strength quickly collapsed. Unemployment remains above 10%, and with the coronavirus still raging in the country, a quick economic turnaround looks impossible.
But some Republicans are hoping voters will just ignore the Trump administration’s bungling of the coronavirus.
“The simplest message I would imply is to remember what the economy is pre-COVID,” Sen. Mike Braun (Ind.) told HuffPost this week.
Another GOP Senator, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, drew criticism recently when he made a similar remark.
“The stakes are very high this election, but you know why I know we’re going to win?” Tillis said. “Because people remember how good their lives were back in February.”
But Braun went even further.
“You’ve gotta do a good job of getting their memories back in place,” Braun said. “For any of us who have a business, you can believe they won’t forget it. For any of us who had a good job before ― wages were going up ― they should remember it.”
“But,” Braun continued, “it’s gotten blurred. We need to be really good at making that point. And not relying on the economy turning out and giving us some break by luck. Or by what happens with coronavirus, which will ebb and flow between now and then.”
Republicans banking on voters remembering how good the economy was seems to be little solace for the more than 20 million people who are newly out of work, or the one-third of Americans who missed their July housing payments.
Instead of remembering the good times, Democrats seem to be banking on voters seeing the current bad times. Much of their campaign message looks like it’ll be about the Trump administration’s coronavirus response ― from a lack of testing, to reopening too soon, to denying science about masks and social distancing. And if recent polling is any indication, these are issues that are on the minds of voters.
When voters were asked in early July which three issues were the most important to them, the three highest vote-getters were health care (46%), the economy (44%), and the coronavirus outbreak (36%).
All three of those issues are at least partially tied together. And Democrats seem to believe they all are part of a return to common sense.
“WTF,” Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.) said when we asked what the central message was for Democrats.
Pocan explained that he thought everyone has had a “WTF” moment with Trump. “I mean, this is anything but normal, and I don’t think there are a whole lot of reasonable, rational people who don’t realize that Donald Trump’s negligence has caused this,” Pocan said, referring to America’s problems with the coronavirus.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) had a similar take.
“Our general election message is, we will not set the country on fire, and Trump is setting the country on fire,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez said the “most galvanizing message” Republicans have had is “racism, xenophobia, misogyny.” But she thought Republicans would struggle to find as much traction with their old playbook when they’re fighting against economic relief for working families, blocking scientists and public health officials from being transparent with the public, and when “their decisions are responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 people.”
Other Democrats offered more traditional messaging advice. The former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2018 elections, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (N.M.), offered a long response about how Democrats were fighting for “kitchen table issues” like lowering prescription drug costs, expanding health care, and passing “sweeping government reforms.”
But the most common answer from Democrats was still about Trump’s handling of coronavirus.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (Calif.) said the No. 1 message was to “restore competence and integrity in the fight against the virus, and help American families in their time of economic need.” He said Democrats wanted to build a better country out of this moment, addressing “systemic issues of inequity, racism and injustice,” and wanted to “restore democracy.”
When HuffPost told Schiff that Democrats seemed to be generally united on their messaging but Republicans seemed to be all over the place, Schiff said that wasn’t surprising.
“They have no ideology anymore except Trump,” Schiff said. “It’s Trump’s party. And because Trump is all over the map and is only interested in self, they have no coherence.”
Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed to this report.