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Can the Democrats Go Beyond Scoring Cheap Political Points?

This election presents a chance for Democrats to go big. Instead, they’re obsessed with sticking it to the GOP.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Every child knows that rule number one in fighting the dark side is to not succumb to the dark side. This week, it seems, Democrats and liberals have forgotten this lesson. In attempting to one-up their Republican rivals, they have employed two tropes usually found in the conservative playbook: trampling on civil liberties and demonizing the poor.

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, Democrats have pushed to restrict the sale of guns to those suspected of terrorism. This, on its face, would seem eminently reasonable. The problem is that they have hitched themselves to the FBI’s terrorism watch lists, which have been criticized for being inaccurate and constitutionally suspect.

House Democrats staged a sit-in to force a vote on gun control, focusing on two measures: one that would expand background checks and another that would allow the attorney general to stop people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns. The sit-in was a response to Senate Republicans blocking four gun control measures earlier this week, one of which, proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein, would have given the Department of Justice the power to prevent the sale of a gun to anyone who has been investigated for terrorism-related activities by the federal government in the last five years. This essentially would have created one of the broadest terrorist watch lists to date.

As many have pointed out, watch lists are a very bad way to track terrorists. As the ACLU explained in a letter to the Senate:

As we have long cautioned, our nation’s watchlisting system is error-prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.The government’s internal guidance for watchlists specifies that nominations to the master watchlist need not be based on “concrete facts,” and it permits placement on the master watchlist based on uncorroborated or even questionably reliable information.

Because the government is given full discretion to label people as terrorists, without any transparency or due process, the lists can easily result in discriminatory profiling. To name but one example: A class-action lawsuit against terrorist watch lists includes as one of its plaintiffs a four-year-old Muslim-American boy.

It’s easy to see why Democrats would take this approach. It is easier to be tough on guns when you’re simultaneously tough on terrorism. The idea that Republicans are so maniacally attached to guns that they would let terrorists get them is powerful messaging. And it all comes with the added bonus of seeing Speaker Paul Ryan squirm. But it perpetuates an unjust system, encourages the further erosion of civil rights, and basically legitimizes the Republican anything-goes approach to fighting terrorism.

And the political benefits are not as clear as they seem. As Alex Shephard noted in The New Republic, Democrats knew the sit-in was almost certainly going to fail. In choosing to support a lousy measure, the Democrats lost an opportunity to publicize what truly comprehensive gun control could look like. They also risk turning the “no fly, no buy” into their signature gun-control issue—one that really wouldn’t even do all that much to reduce gun violence.

Even worse, Democrats have gone full-blown Dick Cheney in their fear-mongering rhetoric. In a tweet, Elizabeth Warren, echoing a statement by Senator Chris Murphy, claimed that in voting against the gun measures, Republican senators were selling guns to ISIS.

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama have all repeated this sentiment in one way or another, revealing how entrenched and acceptable anti-terror rhetoric has become. In their attempt to exploit their opponents’ hypocrisy, Democrats have ended up sounding just like Republicans.

The second trope was less publicized, but just as insidious: the use of the hashtag #TrumpSoPoor, which started trending after Federal Election Commission filings revealed that the Trump campaign only had $1.3 million in cash on hand at the end of May (for comparison, Bernie Sanders’s doomed campaign had $9.2 million). Liberals and conservatives alike took to the internet to deride the presumptive Republican nominee for being poor, and poor people quickly discovered that they were the butt of the joke. The gist of the mockery on social media was: Trump is a loser because he is poor and has to do things that poor people do, like rely on food stamps, eat ramen, and scrounge for loose change. Funny!

While some of the worst insults came from conservatives, many liberals also employed the hashtag to mock Trump. Arianna Huffington defended the hashtag in a tweet, stating, “Is it fair to laugh at the fact that money-obsessed rich guy @realDonaldTrump is so short on fundraising dollars? Yeah. #TrumpSoPoor.” Lest you think the poor-bashing is confined to Twitter, it was even reported in May that the Hillary Clinton campaign considered labeling Trump with the epithet “Poor Donald.”

The problem is that it’s impossible to use the hashtag to make fun of Trump without also making fun of poor people. It’s a bad strategy for a party that prides itself on being a champion of the poor, and wants those very people to vote for their candidate come November.

One of the most important revelations of Bernie Sanders’s campaign was that Democratic voters, especially young ones, aren’t easily scared off by go-big-or-go-home ideas. With the Republican Party in disarray, and a Hillary Clinton victory looking more and more likely in the fall, Democrats have the rare chance, right now, to look past day-to-day politics and work on establishing, and adhering to, a broader liberal vision.

But they are instead in danger of falling into the news-cycle trap of rashly responding to current events to taunt the GOP, rather than thinking of a long-term Democratic agenda. It’s a strategy befitting of Trump himself.

In their hasty attempt to exploit their opponents’ vulnerabilities, liberals have revealed a real weakness for scoring short-term political victories. When it comes to gun control, Democrats are willing to suspend civil liberties just to stage an ultimately ineffective publicity stunt. And, it turns out, deriding poor people is fair game if it means taking down Trump. It seems that liberals are just as ready as their opponents to sacrifice their principles when it is politically expedient—and we shouldn’t let them get away with it when they do.