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Two Views on the Democrats' Strategy to Isolate Trump

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Bloomberg View columnists Ramesh Ponnuru and Francis Wilkinson are discussing the events this week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Click here for their earlier exchange.) 

Ponnuru: On Wednesday night, it felt as if the Democratic convention had segued from addressing Bernie Sanders supporters to courting the broader public. President Barack Obama and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News) argued that Donald Trump does not represent authentically conservative or even Republican values, and that those who hold those values should favor Clinton instead.

“Together, let’s elect a sane, competent person with international experience,” said Bloomberg, while acknowledging that he does not agree with Clinton on some issues.

As you know, I think that’s the smartest tack for the Clinton campaign to take. But it is not a costless one. When Democrats treat Trump as a departure from the Republican mainstream, they make it harder to use him as an indictment of that mainstream.

The tactic might help them run up the electoral score, but not the ideological one -- and for that matter it might run up the electoral score only for Clinton personally rather than for down-ballot Democratic candidates. Split-ticket voting has been declining for years, but the message that “you might not agree with Clinton, but Trump specifically is unacceptable” is an invitation for voters to revive the tradition.

And the more the tactic succeeds, the more it will change the Democratic coalition, bringing in more affluent suburbanites and moderate businessmen. Their presence would inevitably influence the way that coalition governed in the future. If I were a Sanders delegate, I wouldn’t like it -- even if I were a Sanders delegate who agrees that Trump represents a special danger to the country.

But Bloomberg, amazingly, got fewer boos than Leon Panetta did earlier in the night, even though Bloomberg criticized trade barriers and Panetta’s only sin was to say national security is important. For that matter, Bloomberg got fewer boos than former Sanders supporters who had endorsed Clinton did on Monday. So maybe the Democrats have found a way to cater to both audiences simultaneously. Do you expect Clinton mostly to follow the Obama-Bloomberg playbook tonight? 

Wilkinson: If Democrats base a national campaign on the whims of a few dozen irreconcilable Sanders supporters who have difficulty keeping still in class, they will not only lose those affluent suburbanites you mentioned, they will lose their minds.

The scattered boos in the hall are, at this point, largely irrelevant. Sanders brought a lot of new people into the party. Some will stay. A few won't. Hillary Clinton is not going to spend the next three months courting voters who want a revolution.

The strategic question about Trump is an important one, but I think there is good reason to isolate Trump as a unique threat to the nation rather than as a mainstream representative of his party. First, it happens to be true. Democrats didn't like Mitt Romney one bit. But they didn't think he was, as Trump ghostwriter Tony Schwartz went so far as to suggest about Trump, a "sociopath." And it's hard to imagine most Democrats getting especially anxious at the prospect of Romney controlling nuclear codes. That's simply not the case with Trump.

What you saw on Wednesday night was a party that considers itself the only adult in the room. No doubt Republicans find that arrogant and off-putting. But given that Trump is the alternative, I think it's a pretty sober assessment of reality. If defining Trump as an outlier leaves potential winnings on the table -- some down-ballot seats Democrats might have picked up from Republicans but won't -- I think they will gladly accept that.

But this isn't the only, or even necessarily the most likely, outcome of isolating Trump. After all, if you effectively make the case that Trump is a candidate better suited to the "Friday the 13th" franchise than to the leadership of the free world, that implies a question or two about the party that nominated him for president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net