As both parties gear up for the 2018 elections, Democrats harbor high hopes for a wave election that will take back the Congress, put the Senate in play, and revive their party's fortunes in state legislatures across the country.
All Democrats agree a clear statement of what the party stands for is vital for success. The question is whether their candidates will carry the populist agenda and message they need and the times demand, in spite of the same old big-money politics the party pros insist they cannot do without.
A Tantalizing Possibility
Despite a strong economy and low unemployment, the possibility of a wave election tantalizes. Trump is remarkably unpopular, and scholars suggest presidential approval or disapproval is a far more important factor in midterm elections than the state of the economy.
Democrats have also run well in special elections, buoyed by surprising turnout of an aroused base. Republicans are alarmed by the number of incumbents trailing one or more challengers in the money race. This leads some Democratic “pros” to argue for business as usual: pick candidates that “fit their districts” and can raise money, they say. Run traditional campaigns, and count on the resistance to Trump to mobilize the base.
Yet Trump’s rise in recent polls has suddenly sobered the premature partying. The “generic” ballot polling suggests that Republicans have closed what once was a double-digit deficit to Democrats. Current assessments also underestimate what is likely to be an unprecedented flood of money – both reported and dark – that will flood into contested races on the Republican side, as grateful donors and corporations reward Republicans for the tax cuts and regulatory fixes lavished upon them.
In the run-up to this March’s special congressional election in southwest Pennsylvania (PA-18), for example, Republicans grew alarmed at early reporting showing the Democratic challenger was raising more money than the Republican in a district that Trump won by 20 points. So the Republican Congressional Committee mobilized conservative PACs and donors and flooded the district with paid operatives and wall-to-wall ads, outspending the Democrat 5 to 1 on TV in a district that they would expect to win in a walk. Whatever early money edge Democrats may have will evaporate this fall in contested races.
Nationalizing the Elections
With Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the Congress, the midterms will be nationalized. The Republicans' message is clear. They will run on a growing economy and low unemployment, claiming credit is due to the benefits – more mythical than real - from their tax cuts and regulatory rollback. They’ll paint Democratic candidates as Pelosi’s puppets, more interested in protecting “illegal immigrants” than in funding the nation’s military.
The Democrats' message is distinctively less clear. Their current focus on the threat posed by Trump’s lies and obstructions of justice, and the Russian interference in elections, will likely be magnified if special prosecutor Robert Mueller reports before the midterms. Trump’s assault on decency, his racist posturing, and his assaults on women, Moslems, immigrants, the environment and more will and should be a centerpiece.
On the economy, Democrats are most comfortable championing jobs and growth. They’ll criticize Trump for his failure to launch a serious infrastructure program, and for the assault on Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid.
Yes, the economy is growing, and unemployment is low. But wages remain stagnant. This economy still doesn’t work well for most Americans. More and more find it hard to afford basic security – health care, housing, education, retirement security. So unless this panorama changes, the real question to ask is why even a growing economy doesn’t relieve the harsh struggles facing working and poor people.
Trump is vulnerable for abandoning virtually all of the populist promises he made during the campaign. His celebrated tax bill gives corporations a permanent incentive to move jobs or report profits abroad, while larding the rich and big corporations with the bulk of the loot.
His assaults on regulation and enforcement weaken protections of consumers, minorities, women, and the environment against the depredations of corporations and the wealthy. Instead of cleaning out the swamp, he’s savaged public service while giving corporate lobbyists the keys to the city. Instead of ending “stupid wars,” he’s doubled down on them, with U.S. forces dispatched to a stunning 168 countries in his first year in office.
The Candidates' Choice
Democratic candidates who combine this indictment with a bold agenda focused on redressing the rigged economy will find the greatest traction. Yet Rep. Joe Kennedy’s widely praised response to Trump’s State of the Union reveals how hesitant Democrats are in making this case.
Kennedy painted a compelling picture of the “fractured fault lines” of America. He argued that “the administration” – Trump is not mentioned by name -- forces “false choices” – between coal miners and single moms, rural and urban, coastal and heartland. Democrats instead “choose both.”
That awkward phrase opened the way to his agenda: “living wage and paid leave and affordable child care, solvent pensions, fair trade pacts, bridges that aren’t rusting, affordable education, a health care system that offers you mercy,” and an economy “brave enough to admit that top CEOs making 300 times what average workers make is not right.”
Who Is To Blame?
There are two striking things about this presentation. First, there is no explanation about why we have false choices. Who is to blame? Who rigged the deal? Implicitly, the culprits are Trump and Republicans. There is no mention of the big money and entrenched interests that have corrupted our politics and fixed the rules to benefit themselves. For working people who have been struggling for decades, not for simply a year, this omission makes the speech more partisan than convincing.
Second, the agenda is a list of desirable goals, rather than explicit pledges. Trump, however, trumpets many of the same goals. And Republicans offer a strategy – tax cuts, deregulation, cutting government spending – that they claim will get us there. Kennedy’s speech is bereft of any sense of strategy. “We choose both.” That renders the promises empty to the skeptical.
The response offered by Bernie Sanders offers a clear contrast. Sanders has his liabilities as an orator, but he is currently the most popular politician in America. Part of the reason for that surely is that people trust that he tells it straight.
Sanders goes after Trump directly for his “divisiveness, dishonesty and racism,” and for the “promises he made to working people which he did not keep.” He skewers Trump’s claims on the economy, focusing on the reality that the rich are getting much richer while millions of workers continue to struggle.
He points out that the owners of Wal-Mart and Amazon are cleaning up, paying their workers so little that they must rely on Medicaid and food stamps to survive, and taxpayers foot the bill. He indicts the tax cuts directly for benefiting the top one percent. He scours Trump for failing to mention, among other things, the flood of money that is corrupting our elections since the Citizens United decision.
Demanding Real Change
Sanders then invokes the growing citizen movements demanding real change – Medicare for All, fair taxes on billionaires, trade deals that help working people not multinationals, a $15 minimum wage, free tuition at public colleges, universal childcare, equal pay for women, criminal justice reform and more. The promises are clear, often explicit, given force by the popular mobilizations that demand them.
Establishment Democrats, as reliant on big money as Republicans, are uncomfortable with this kind of straight talk. And it is possible that Trump will sufficiently rouse Democratic and independent voters that Democrats may surge at the polls in 2018, even without a compelling message or agenda.
But in the end, Democrats won’t build an enduring majority for the profound reforms we need without a clear explanation of why we are in the mess we are in, who did it to us, how we get out, and how the country and the vast majority of working people will benefit. Republicans have their argument. If Democrats counter with noble sentiment and fine goals, they will do little to dispel the public’s skepticism about politicians.
Establishment Democrats are worried about the likelihood of fierce primary challenges by aroused Democratic activists, particularly those coming out of the energy generated by the Sanders campaign, Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Establishment candidates -those who can self-fund or raise a lot of money - will be forced to spend money fending off progressive challengers, rather than husbanding their resources for the general election.
Ironically, it's these progressive challengers – win or lose – who will help Democrats find their voice. They will push the party to adopt a bolder agenda and a clearer argument. They will upset some, and improve others in ways that are both both necessary and long overdue.
And the insult posed by Trump and the Republican Congress will help unify most Democrats and independents no matter how divisive the midterms and primaries may be. The new insurgent energy should be celebrated, not dismissed.