Is a Trump defense the best strategy?

From the legislative session's opening day in January to this month's Sine Die, the Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly put up a significant defensive effort against President Donald Trump, his proposed budget and his policy agenda — to the delight of many liberals. Yet as we now enter the 2018 gubernatorial cycle in earnest, I have to wonder whether the best electoral offense for Maryland Democrats is a Trump defense.

There is no denying that the defensive effort gave a progressive base still reeling from the election outcome reasons to cheer. A bill was passed to direct state money to Planned Parenthood if federal funds are pulled, the attorney general was empowered to sue the federal government without gubernatorial consent, and the Protect our Schools Act was promoted as a defense against the privatization agenda of Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. There was even an effort to make Maryland a "sanctuary state," though it was ultimately unsuccessful.

The defensive tack also extended to policies progressives view as protecting the Maryland worker. Maryland Democrats mustered the support to pass a veto-proof paid sick leave bill. Political groundwork was laid to wage a statewide "fight for $15" in a future session. And, in an effort to defend the environment, a hydraulic fracturing ban was sent to Gov. Larry Hogan's desk.

However, while social justice, education and health care issues undoubtedly have the ability to inspire and motivate different constituencies, it's still economic issues — particularly those centered around job creation — that speak to all Marylanders. Put simply, missing from the gusto to enact Trump-preemptive policy and rally veto-proof majorities was a matched passion to promote a full policy agenda focused on job and economic growth.

In fact, even in their own "legislative session wrap-up" press release, the Maryland Democratic Party mentioned the word "jobs" just four times and "economy" only twice. The same release mentioned "Trump" eight times and "Hogan" 19 times. The single job growth policy mentioned — Governor Hogan's veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which the assembly overrode — was relegated to the final two sentences. And, instead of touting what the Clean Energy Jobs Act could potentially do for the Maryland economy, the focus was on comparing President Trump and Governor Hogan on green jobs.

Of course, attempting to link Governor Hogan to the unpopular president was part of the defensive strategy. Democrats tried to force the governor on defense with them, obviously in hope that voters would view his reluctance to do so as guilt by partisan affiliation. Despite pressure throughout the legislative session, Governor Hogan balked at being asked "stupid" questions about the Trump administration and refused to specifically address the potential impacts of proposed federal policies. On their end, Maryland voters continued to give the governor high marks — our mid-session Goucher Poll had his approval ratings in the mid-60s.

Instead of talking Trump, Governor Hogan maintained the Maryland-focused, economic message that got him elected and has helped maintain his popularity. He once again proposed a program to incentivize manufacturing in Maryland through tax credits for businesses that open in areas with higher unemployment. After being ignored for the majority of the legislative session, an amended version was eventually passed and was immediately touted by the Hogan administration as a victory for job creation.

Of course, if the feared negative impacts of Mr. Trump's proposed "skinny budget" and other policies do develop into the worst-case scenario, voters could reward the Democrats for having the foresight to defend Maryland against Mr. Trump. This could even hold true among the more fiscally-minded "Hogan Democrats" and independents if Maryland experiences significant job loss and economic downturn.

Then again, while Governor Hogan has remained mostly silent on federal policy, this certainly doesn't preclude him from speaking out in the future. There is nothing stopping the governor from taking a critical stance on the Trump administration if economically damaging federal policies do fully materialize as Election Day draws near. Not only that, Governor Hogan could argue that the best defense is a strong, diversified Maryland economy, which his policies helped to build.

The mid-session Goucher Poll also showed that Governor Hogan's approval rating still registers in the mid-fifties among those Marylanders who disapproved of President Trump, but it is far lower among those who view the Democrats as having better policies for economic growth. Thus, it all comes down to whether a negative voting strategy — i.e. when the vote is rallied against the other party and their platform, rather than for your own — is a winning one in 2018.

Perhaps it's time for the Maryland Democrats to stop playing so much Trump defense and start playing some economic offense.

Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science. Her email is mileah.kromer@goucher.edu; Twitter: @mileahkromer.

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