Republican politicians are masters of indirection. And led by Donald Trump, they’re beginning again, with an eye toward transforming the 2020 presidential election away from what it certainly should be: a referendum on his chaotic presidency.

They’re hoping to repeat their 2016 success in damaging Hillary Clinton, this time by turning 2020 into an ideological election and convincing voters that Democrats are left-wing extremists who would undermine basic American values.

For years before 2016, congressional Republicans sought to sully Clinton’s reputation by accusing her of responsibility through negligence for the deaths of four Americans killed by terrorists in Benghazi, Libya.

Later, Trump’s campaign tried to counter concerns about his personal life including his crude statements about women and reported payments to cover up affairs by raising two-decade-old questions about the similarly dubious private life of Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. (Without acknowledging that Clinton’s affairs resulted in impeachment.)

In an election decided by a razor-thin majority, it’s hard to dispute that these diversions had some effect.

Now, as 2020 nears and Trump faces an uphill re-election fight, he sent signals about his next campaign in last week’s State of the Union speech and Monday’s rally in El Paso.

He did so by citing the more extreme positions of some Democrats to distract from his own problems, such as potential charges from the Mueller investigation or policy failures like weakening health care protections and separating small children from their illegal immigrant parents.

In the speech to Congress, he used graphic language to urge enactment of a measure banning late-term abortions, assailing New York legislators for cheering a bill he inaccurately said would allow “a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth” and Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam for supporting a measure he said would “execute a baby after birth.’’

While his proposal has no chance of passage, Trump was able to underscore his appeal to his religious conservative supporters and perhaps others by targeting the least popular measure backed by many abortion rights supporters.

Later, he coupled his denunciation of Venezuela’s tottering socialist government with a warning, in effect, to “not let it happen here.” Exaggerating the influence of freshman New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and surveys showing growing support for socialist ideas, the president decried “new calls to adopt socialism here in our country” and declared “we renew our resolve that America never will be a socialist country.”

In El Paso, he reiterated those riffs and derided Democrats as “the party of late term abortion, socialism and crime.”

His warnings far overstated any likelihood of Americans displacing capitalism with socialism. But some prominent Democrats may risk legitimizing Trump’s exaggerations by urging costly expansions of federal health, education and environmental programs, including proposals to pay college costs for all, transform Medicare into a universal government health program and dramatically increase the use of renewable energy sources by backing Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

In recent weeks, most Democratic presidential candidates have declared at least general support for the environmental program. And Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California all echoed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to adopt “Medicare for all” without indicating how it would be financed, let alone implemented.

Harris created a distraction from an otherwise smooth rollout by saying in a CNN-conducted forum she favors scrapping private insurance (a stance Gillibrand echoed as an “urgent goal”). Harris noted many people have faced problems from gaps in private coverage, adding, “Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on.” Aides said later she didn’t necessarily mean eliminating all private coverage.

But another potential candidate, who has endorsed neither Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal, downplayed concerns his party was giving Trump an opening. “The Democratic party isn’t making this huge move to the left,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told reporters Tuesday at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, adding party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set policy, not individual lawmakers.

Polls show increasing public support for expanding Medicare. But they also indicate many Americans like their employer-provided health insurance and would be leery of a program requiring higher taxes.

Republicans clearly hope to offset Trump’s unpopularity by portraying the 2020 election as an ideological referendum between Democrats lurching left and a Trump more centrist than his administration’s avowedly conservative bent.

Their problem is that, while presidential contests inevitably involve comparisons between rival candidates, those with presidents seeking re-election are more likely to be referendums on their tenures.

Democrats need a nominee who is broadly acceptable to the electorate’s center and left but avoids impractical extremes that turn off independents. And they’ll need someone tough enough to counter the barrage of personal and ideological invective from Trump and his allies.

Meeting those basic parameters should enable the Democrats to convince a majority of Americans to reject four more years of the chaos, scandal and incompetence that has marked the most divisive presidency of modern times.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, where this first appeared. 

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