Should we call this the Berryville bust or blunder? Democrats rolled out their new economic agenda towards the end of July—and it pretty much fell flat. Is it because it’s the same as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform? That certainly could be a factor since that’s the truth. While Democrats generally agree that new ideas and a robust economic message is needed, the leadership’s so-called “Better Deal” was met with lukewarm praise by the rank-and-file. Some like it, some are indifferent, and others don’t think its necessary. After the GOP’s thumping in 2008 and 2012, it took years to get their messaging somewhat correct. It’s still not perfect and the limitations of the fixes they implemented to retake the Congress and the presidency has been exposed with their failed push on health care. So, what are the Democrats saying?
The national party remains far from consensus on a unified message — Democrats can’t even agree on whether the party needs one.
“Just as there isn’t one kind of Democrat, there [is] not just one kind of message that works,” said California Rep. Jim Costa, a Blue Dog Coalition co-chair. “One size doesn’t fit all. We have an economically diverse country.”
When the party's congressional leaders gathered in suburban Virginia to roll out the new affirmative economic message they'd long been promising, it was designed to give Democrats a way to talk about what exactly they stand for — other than simply standing as the party of opposition to the White House.
But not every incumbent wants to be associated with the party’s message. And many of the party’s influential constituent groups and moneyed organizations are busy pursuing their own messaging and branding initiatives and remain in the early stages of their own investigations into what went wrong in November. Some — including the Democratic National Committee and individual state party committees — are busy preparing their own, independent lines of messaging.
“It’s a good thing that national Democrats are trying to coalesce around a generally unifying message about economic opportunity and job creation as an alternative to Trumpism. However, very few candidates are going to run on a national platform — nor should they,” cautioned communications strategist Zac Petkanas. “While there will likely be similar themes about a corrupt, out-of-touch Trump Washington and creating economic opportunity for all, candidates are going to tailor their own messages against their individual opponents while taking advantage of a national Trump backlash. That’s how races are won and lost."
Other red-state Senate Democrats expressed similarly cautious support for the party’s new messaging.
“We need new ideas, and I appreciate the opportunity to have ongoing discussions about the overall agenda,” North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who joins Heitkamp and Manchin near the top of the GOP’s 2018 target list, said “generally speaking, I support” the agenda “because it’s got a lot of stuff for broadband and infrastructure.”
The publication added how party leadership worked with the Sanders wing of the movement, though they’ve been hesitant to put the full weight of the party behind their big-ticket items, like single-payer health care, though Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said all options are on the table on this issue. So, the party is torn on the message, torn on how to move forward for 2018 and beyond, torn on who the leader is, and torn on the leadership. It’s not secret that Bernie-ites and Rust Belt Democrats, what’s left of them, are not happy with Schumer or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). That’s a lot of internal drama. Yet, does it spell trouble for Democrats in the midterms? Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report says no because the midterms are not about the issues; it’s about who’s in charge on the Hill:
The party in the White House has gained House seats in only two modern elections, and the circumstances both times were special. In 1998, Democrats rode a backlash against the Republican majority in Congress that was preparing to impeach President Clinton. In 2002, 14 months after the 9/11 attacks, the GOP made modest gains in an election that was about patriotism after a national emergency.
Some political buffs might ask about 1994 and the Contract with America that Newt Gingrich and Republicans ran on. Many forget, or never knew, that the Contract with America was announced only six weeks before the election, after it was already clear that the election was going to be a disaster for Clinton and congressional Democrats.
The proportion of people who were aware of the Contract before the election was actually quite small. If memory serves, it was mainly distributed as an insert in TV Guide. Gingrich deserves an enormous amount of credit for taking the fight to Clinton and Democrats and creating the atmosphere that helped rout them, but to say it was about issues is to overstate things by a ton. Clinton’s job-approval ratings had been in the high 30’s and low 40’s for much of the two years leading into that midterm, and the election was a referendum on him and his party. The Republicans’ strong suit was that they weren’t Democrats and were against Clinton. Those are the kinds of things that decide midterm elections.
Graham Vyse over at The New Republic reiterated that point:
…[G]enerally speaking, that Democrats should have a clear identity that’s independent of Trump. But Democrats don’t necessarily need it next year. Opposing the president—or simply being the opposing party—may be enough. “History generally shows that the out party in a midterm doesn’t typically need much of a message if the presidential party is unpopular,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the election analysis website Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told me. “Midterms are historically referendums on the ruling party. In other words, despite the Democrats’ internal fissures, opposition to Trump may be enough in 2018 for them to make significant gains.”
Yes, politics are local, candidates will craft messages that will tailor to their districts, but there’s also the question of funding. California is different than Nebraska, so while some might welcome the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee saying they won’t cut funds for pro-life candidates, which would be a plus for any Democrat running in a red-leaning district—the social justice warrior, feminist brigade can’t throw a tantrum. At the same time, abortion is a key plank in the national Democratic Party platform, so you can also see where local and national mesh—and it can get messy. While Republicans might not like pro-choice candidates, they’re hardly ones to take their dismay and disgust to the level we’ve seen on the right concerning the DCCC decision not to have abortion as a litmus test. Former New York Gov. George Pataki was pro-choice, as was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Most GOP members in the northeast are moderate on social issues. We might not want them near a chairmanship gavel, but we’re not plotting something out of The Purge either. Gay marriage is becoming less of a toxic issue on the right. I also don’t recall any former chairmen of the Republican National Committee withholding support of the party because there are gay members or those who support gun control. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), a Club for Growth Tea Party follower, backed a background check bill post-Newtown in 2013. It failed, but it contributed to his re-election three years later. His hard-core conservative image was softened, but he knew, as everyone else, that Pennsylvania is a difficult race to win as a Republican during a presidential year due to the turnout in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; Toomey survived. Even with his pro-gun control stance, Toomey is still a fiscal conservative and the National Republicans Senatorial Committee gave him over $5 million last year.
Frankly, the Trump era, which I myself was a bit hesitant to back (no, I was really hesitant), has been interesting politically. It’s chaotic, fast-paced, and is indeed something new. Whether that’s good or bad is not what we’re discussing. It’s unpredictable. It’s not within the norms of typical elections. Given how Trump has performed with white working class voters, coupled with his approval in the key counties that pushed him over the top, it’s possible that the GOP could hang on in 2018. You saw that with Georgia’s special election; Democratic turnout was the highest in a decade. The Democrat, Jon Ossoff, still lost, which brings us to the other issue: candidates. There may be a lot filing to run, but if they’re terrible—what’s the point. Ossoff was the best candidate Democrats could find for Georgia and he wasn’t event all that good. Did he perform better than usual? Yes, but almost isn’t a win. He still lost and for a party that needs to reclaim parts of rural America and right-leaning districts to retake the House, this will be a challenge. The Democrats are laser focused on the 24 districts that split for Clinton and their respective Republican representative. There are a dozen districts where the opposite is true: Trump won, but voters decided to split tickets for their Democratic representative. Third Way, a left-leaning think tank, slapped the Left with a wet towel, noting that even if Democrats were able to turnout every 2016 Clinton voter and have them flip in time for the 2018 midterms—it would not be enough to win the House back. Republicans are not nearly as vulnerable as Democrats were leading into 2010. Democrats are obsessed about Russia; no one else is. They’re being obstructionist over everything and voters see this. They see Democrats as preventing Trump from trying to do what he was sent to D.C. to do to get the economy going. They’re hurting, they’re struggling, and they still feel the elite, especially progressives, don’t get their situation. They may not like Trump’s personality, but they like him on policy. There’s a lot of nuance; a lot of ways to skin the electoral cat, as they say with politics in the Trump era. It took two years for the GOP to right the “legitimate rape” trip that helped sink the party in 2012; the War on Women nonsense was alive and well. For Democrats, they didn’t have a message that was new, they denigrated and mocked millions of voters simply because they didn’t think like them, they have no one that they can point to as a solid leader for the party, and they’re about to tear each other to pieces over abortion.
The messaging may not be the secret sauce for 2018, but knowing how they’re still in the weeds, I doubt this “better deal” will catch on with voters by the time 2020 rolls around. Almost 60 percent of those in Trump counties don’t have a position on health care. That’s an inroad, but Democrats want to push single-payer, which is an economic horror show for the middle and working classes. Actually, it’s a total disaster for everyone. That debate will be interesting. This will be another battle between the Left’s progressive insurgent wing and the establishment that will be nasty. We’ve seen it already in California. The dogmatic and authoritarian tendencies of the left wing politics, the ethos of it, will not allow for moderation. It’s a rigid binary choice of destruction or compliance. That won’t be conducive to Trump voter outreach, which Democrats need to make a comeback. And there are some things that I can see that will not sit well with the condescending, insufferable urban professional elite that is the Democratic Party base. Josh Kraushaar of National Journal had more on the third Way survey:
The analysis comes as a sobering reminder that, despite the golden opportunity Democrats have to take back the House next year, they will still have to win in areas outside their cultural comfort zone.
The paper spotlights some more uncomfortable realities: There were twice as many voters (around 6 million) who defected from President Obama to Trump than there were who went from Mitt Romney to Clinton (about 3 million). The GOP defectors disproportionately hail from states that aren’t competitive in Senate and presidential races, while the newfound Trump supporters are concentrated in the Midwestern battlegrounds. So Clinton’s impressive gains in deep-blue California’s Orange County and ruby-red Texas’s Harris County are unlikely to make a dent in the two states’ overwhelming partisan advantages.
The political crosscurrents on the House map also played to Trump’s favor, albeit less dramatically: Twenty-one House districts went from backing Obama to supporting Trump, while 15 switched from Romney to Clinton. Most of those Clinton-district Republicans have strong individual brands at the congressional level. Republicans hold all 15 of the Romney-Clinton seats, all 15 representatives outperformed Trump in their districts last year, and 11 of them won by whopping double-digit margins. It’s unlikely that Republicans will be able to maintain those advantages in their first midterm with Trump, but many have won under difficult circumstances before.
By contrast, Republicans now hold 12 of the 21 Obama-Trump seats. These districts appear to be steadily heading away from their Democratic roots, giving Republicans more opportunities in the future. In fact, two of the Democrats holding Obama-Trump seats (Reps. Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Tim Walz of Minnesota) are running for higher office, giving House Republicans unexpected openings.
Trump’s myriad political problems could be the short-term answer. The growing Russia scandal, a glaring lack of legislative accomplishments, and the worsening chaos within the White House may be enough for Democrats to take back the House in 2018 and the presidency in three years. But longer-term, Democrats will have to grapple with the reality that their party’s message, increasingly tailored to cosmopolitan interests, is struggling to resonate with a majority of the country.
The GOP doesn’t have that problem. Being for job creation, for the Second Amendment, for a smaller government, for fewer regulations, for lower taxes, and for border security are popular positions. Democrats and liberals will find a way to make that sound racist, especially on immigration, thanks to the toxicity of identity politics. The handicaps on the Democratic side are quite explicit—and it’s very possible they’re too self-righteous to fix it. That’s fine. Then, it’ll be a toast to keeping the majority, which also can’t pass Obamacare repeal, but that’s a story for another time.