If you believe prominent Democrats, the bruising and battering they took in 2017 is already in the distant past. Midterm elections loom in the future, just 10 months away, and optimistic Dems are eyeing an unbelievable uphill battle — flipping both the House and Senate, winning long-red governorships and securing the reins in state legislatures, which will control a 2021 redistricting that will dictate the political landscape for the next decade.
It is not simply a once-in-a-generation opportunity, but a critical moment for a Democratic Party that seems woefully underprepared for the monumental fight ahead. It’s indisputable that current poll numbers and historical precedent fall on their side. It’s also true that fresh off the passage of a deeply unpopular tax overhaul, Dems have amassed an arsenal of stumping points and barbed criticisms in this first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
However, the single issue imperiling these Democratic midterm dreams is a (longstanding) failure of their own doing — namely, the lack of a universal message.
“Too many Americans don’t know what we stand for,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) said in July, while unveiling a new agenda dubbed “A Better Deal.”
There is staggering truth in this admission.
As this new year dawns, Democratic leadership seems content to rely on the general unhappiness of the American voter. They are quick to point out the basement-dwelling polling numbers of President Trump. They rail against the president’s dangerous Twitter diplomacy. There is only one unifying figure within the Democratic Party, and it’s Donald J. Trump — and that is a colossal problem.
What do the Democrats stand for? They know what they don’t stand for — they know what repulses them and what pales the conscience of the decent American citizen. They can see the dissatisfied voters at a distance, still jittery with the enthusiasm that galvanized the Trump and Sanders campaigns, but lack a vehicle to actually reach these Americans in a positive and meaningful way.
They share a common animus with large portions of the American public, but is that enough? As midterm races begin to shape up, Democratic candidates must wonder, how far will the anti-Trump sentiment — the wind at their backs — take them?
Make no mistake, these midterm elections are a unique and ripe political opportunity. The last three times one party entered the midterms with unified control of Congress — Clinton in 1994, Bush in 2006 and Obama in 2010 — the opposing party wrestled back control in at least one of the chambers.
Compared to his three predecessors who faced this situation, Trump is the least popular at this juncture, drawing historically low approval ratings. The implications are also monumental for Democrats — the fate of the Trump-Russia Congressional investigations, the reversal of GOP gerrymandering, the chance to halt Trump’s deeply conservative judicial stacking, the ability to stop dead the upcoming battle dealing with entitlement cuts.
Thirty-Three Senate seats, all 435 House seats, 39 state and territorial governorships, and a myriad of state and local elections — and the Democratic strategy is exactly what again?
According to Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), it’s their new job-centric platform: “A Better Deal.” It is a stale platform, many politicos think, built on the rusted trestles of cheap Franklin D. Roosevelt-era wordplay, and hearkening back to a glorified time in Democratic politics that no current voter was alive to even experience, let alone get nostalgic over.
The reality is that, since Schumer’s unveiling of “A Better Deal” in the small Virginia town of Berryville, there’s been little push or enthusiasm for the agenda. Outside of nestling in Bernie Sanders’ call for a $15 minimum wage, there is nothing within the platform that is new or ambitious.
Hillary Clinton proposed tax credits for apprenticeships throughout her entire campaign, a key proposal within “A Better Deal.” Similarly, Obama waged the battle against corporate monopolies and fought for increased consumer protections. Many key proposals within the platform, such as infrastructure investment and prescription drug price control, are largely bipartisan issues.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee said, when discussing this new Democratic mission. It is a failsafe political refrain, and a powerful one, that launched President Trump into office.
But with a precarious Republican majority, already plagued by in-fighting, discord and retiring representatives, where are the bold proposals and progressive ideas that could not only flip Congress this year, but lay the groundwork for the next generation of Democratic party principles?
Where is the Democratic rallying cry for a better future that will inspire minority and younger voters — two key demographics that have historically poor midterm turnout numbers — to show up to the polls? Where is the enthusiasm that Bernie Sanders cultivated, reaching wide swaths of aggrieved independent voters long weary of establishment Democratic candidates?
A major issue is the current Democratic leadership. Pelosi and Schumer are old-guard liberals, hailing from the coasts and ill-equipped to make inroads with voters, even currently dissatisfied voters, in Middle and Southern America. Since the Trump presidency began, they’ve balked at many of the proposals that made Bernie Sanders, and progressive 2020 frontrunners like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), popular with the middle and working class — a roadway to free college tuition, reforming Wall Street, single-payer healthcare.
Under the Pelosi and Schumer banner, the American populace knows that Democrats are against dismantling the Affordable Care Act, the historical levels of income inequality and the bubble of student debt — but what exactly do they advocate instead?
Even with a milquetoast platform, Democratic politicos remain cheerful about the future. Anger, they assert, is a suitable motivator for substantial change. They point to 2017 victories in Virginia and New Jersey, and are still giddy over the improbable victory of Senator Doug Jones in ruby-red Alabama. They preach patience, eyeing the 2020 presidential election as a watershed moment for progressive reform.
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Further, if history is meant to be repeated, a new progressive milieu may be already fast-approaching. The socio-economic abuses of Twain’s Gilded Age paved the way for Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive crusade, which busted trusts, improved labor relations and established the national park system. In the 1920s, the Wall Street Crash allowed Roosevelt to establish much of the social safety net we still rely on today.
The Democratic Party lacks a unifying message for the 2018 midterm elections. At its very least, it’s an unseized opportunity. Instead, the party has hitched its wagons to anti-Trump sentiment, banking on a steadfast modus operandi for a combative president, who admittedly, has shown no signs of changing his divisive ways entering 2018. It is a dangerous game, without question. Prodding the angry may work right now, but there’s no guarantee that the American populace will still be angry in 10 months’ time.