It is both a good and a bad time to be a Democrat in the United States.
On one hand, there’s the train wreck of a President, and the GOP-controlled Congress, and the constant ooze of ultra-conservative policy proposals festering inside our legislative and executive branches.
On the other hand, to all appearances, Republicans seem to be trying to hand the 2018 and 2020 elections to the Democrats. Their president is almost unbelievably unpopular, a semi-reliable indicator of how his party will do in the midterms. Despite his relatively well-disliked decisions on subjects like the Paris Agreement, his travel ban, firing former FBI director James Comey, and continuing to tweet, the party has insisted on backing him up regardless of whether their supposed principles dictate that they should. They have for some reason decided that it is a good idea to try to ram through a health care bill with a 17 percent approval rating and the potential to kill thousands of people.
In fact, I’ve written before about how Republicans ought to worry about 2018 and beyond — their legislative priorities don’t resonate with voters, and the special elections that have been going on around the nation since November of 2016 have largely seen Democrats performing surprisingly well in even the deepest red districts. Republicans have a demographically dwindling base and have thus far shown shockingly little ability to attract new demographics. Trump did not win by finding new voters for the GOP — he won because by and large, people who already identified as Republicans voted for him.
But despite the fact that Republicans are basically giving future elections to liberals on a silver platter, Democrats are nothing if not adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and they could be heading towards another loss simply because they are apparently pathologically resistant to learning anything.
I would consider 2018 winnable for Democrats. Despite the fact that 23 Senate Democrats are up for reelection to Republicans’ eight and the fact that Democrats tend to have poor midterm turnout, the combination of Trump and the GOP’s legislative failings make it possible for them to win, provided they’re willing to kick in a coherent party platform, good candidate recruitment and a little old-fashioned elbow grease.
The problem is that Democrats aren’t great at any of those things. They’re better at running headlong towards mushy centrism than putting forward a solid message, they give red districts up for dead without bothering to run or fund candidates in them, and when the going gets tough establishment Democrats and Democratic donors are often nowhere to be seen.
Fortunately, their base seems to be at least partially taking care of some of their problems — hundreds of Democrats are stepping up to run in 2018, and progressive groups like EMILY’s List are ramping up their recruitment drives to find high-quality candidates who stand a chance of beating out incumbent Republicans. Passionate anti-Trump sentiment is smoothing the way for a Democratic takeover.
But motivating candidates isn’t going to be enough. Those candidates can be as qualified and as driven as they want, but they’ll still lose if the Democratic party doesn’t move people to actually vote for them. And that’s where it looks like the Democrats might be doomed to repeat their history.
First, Democrats need to advocate for the right to vote in a big way if they want to win elections. The GOP has been chipping away at minority voting rights for years — it’s time for Democrats to make advancing and protecting minority voters from disenfranchisement a priority instead of something to leave for the courts and talk about disparagingly on TV. In places where it’s more difficult for Black and Latino people, Native people, disabled people and those with felony convictions to vote, Democrats must be on the front lines fighting for them. It’s a fundamental democratic right that should never have been eroded, and it’s long past time for Democrats to mount a major opposition. That opposition should be based in their ideals rather than opportunism, but I’m not holding my breath for them to stand on principle.
Additionally, Democrats need to produce a consistent get-out-the-vote effort, which they have been neglecting in off-year elections. They should be offering to help voters register and providing them rides to the polls. Large swaths of Americans who tend to swing left, like young people and people of color, are less likely to vote in midterm elections, which obviously helps to account for the embarrassing clobberings they took in 2010 and 2014. Democrats can only counter this tendency by getting voters through the doors of their polling places by any means necessary.
To make this job easier on themselves, Democrats must build up enthusiasm for 2018 and all of the other off-year elections. Republicans are giving them a boost by owning the incompetence and unpopularity of Trump and combining it with a legislative agenda that doesn’t represent what voters actually want, but Democrats have to be responsible for actually being a more attractive alternative.
Running screaming away from their own president in 2014 didn’t work out for Democrats, and neither will pointing at Republicans and saying “look how bad they are.” Trump proves that. Greg Gianforte proves that.
Should violently assaulting a reporter or repeatedly making bigoted statements on the campaign trail automatically turn voters away from you? Yes. But it doesn’t. Making your campaign about your opponent’s glaring inadequacies assumes that American politics is taking place in a just world, and it’s not. So Democrats have got to start making themselves look good instead of just making their opponents look bad.
To do that, they’re going to need to stop heading for the center. Republicans have a consistent, hard-conservative policy agenda, and despite the fact that fanatic conservatism isn’t actually the order of the day in America, they keep winning with it. But for some reason, Democrats refuse to take strong progressive stands, because even though left-wing policies are popular in this country, they are convinced that they have to shift right and appeal to Republican ideals to win elections. They run ex-Republicans like Charlie Crist and Tom O’Halleran and refuse to commit to popular progressive policies like single-payer health care because they consider it too ambitious.
This lukewarm attempt to appeal to everyone that really appeals to no one will continue to sink Democrats because they refuse to take a cue from the wildly successful GOP and reject the mushy middle. As Harry Truman pointed out, “The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article every time.”
Democrats have a chance to win big in 2018 and beyond if they follow the example of progressives abroad and conservatives here. But they seem more inclined to continue drafting fantasy impeachment articles and embracing centrism than to start actually defending and promoting left-wing policies.
If they keep it up, they’re just going to keep losing.