Last week, centrist Democrat and political neophyte Conor Lamb won an improbable special election victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th — a rural, white, blue-collar district that Trump previously carried by 20 points.
For Republicans, the defeat is an agonizing black eye. Conservative groups had drowned the district in $10 million worth of advertising. Trump held a fiery rally in the days preceding the election. Lamb’s opponent, Rick Saccone, was a battle-tested candidate — a Pennsylvania State Representative, a military veteran, a man so aligned with the president that he once referred to himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.”
As America has seen in nearly every special election since Trump’s inauguration, an enthusiasm gap exists in America. In the course of a year, Democrats have closed double-digit polling deficits in some of the reddest and most conservative swatches of America. Six months before mid-term elections, the political tea leaves are already predicting a “bloodbath.” Once a wistful pipe dream, the reclamation of the two-dozen seats to regain the House now seems like a certitude.
The “Blue Wave” in the United States is very real. Democrats have mid-term election history on their side. Scores of new candidates are competing in districts that didn’t even run a candidate in years past. Over a dozen prominent Republicans are resigning from Congress at the end of their term. President Trump, mired in an array of scandals involving everything from colluding Kremlin agents to scorned porn stars, has become an albatross upon the neck of his own party.
For Nancy Pelosi and company, it should be nothing but blue skies and sunshine. It should be. Remember, however, that this is the modern Democratic Party — a political entity that’s routinely made a breathtaking spectacle of shooting itself in the foot.
As they did preceding the 2016 presidential election, Democrats have won the media battle. They’ve dominated the polling numbers leading into the mid-term elections. Dig a little bit deeper, however, and there is room for concern. Dysfunction is still the name of the game for the Democratic Party, and since the general election, it’s only gotten worse.
First and foremost, Democrats have a big-time messaging problem. Outside of loathing Donald Trump, the Democratic message is a muddled stew of bland and often bipartisan policies (infrastructure spending, lowered prescription costs), progressive proposals unsupported by mainline centrists (debt-free college, universal healthcare) and dull sentiments.
Lamb, not exactly a political firebrand, molded his entire campaign around “common ground” — a stance that effectively means nothing. He refused to talk about President Trump. He danced around historically thorny issues like gun control and abortion. He maybe, might, possibly support fracking and coal. Despite all the Democratic fanfare, the hard truth is that Lamb was a homegrown candidate — and a vague centrist — more than a Democrat.
This notion was not lost on the Republican establishment.
“The candidate who is going to win this race is the candidate who ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative,” Paul Ryan (R – WI) said at a press conference last Wednesday.
For the Democratic establishment, the official spin is that Lamb’s non-party stances are a strength.
“We need to be a party as diverse as the people and districts we represent,” Congressman Seth Moulton said.
Here lies the disingenuous long-standing mandate of the Democratic Party — inclusion, above all else. This would be a beautiful sentiment if the Democratic establishment actually believed it. Even then, it would come with a hefty price tag — one that doesn’t allow for a unified vision of the world to combat the powerful, if dangerously xenophobic world, that Donald Trump masterfully weaved for Americans during his campaign.
But it’s far worse than that. Old-guard Democrats are actively squeezing out those seeking to inject a progressive and fresh worldview into the party. The primaries have been rife with instances of intra-party sabotage. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the official party committee supporting Democratic House candidates, has been repeatedly accused of not just backing establishment candidates “who are out of step with the national mood,” but actively derailing the campaigns of progressive and activist Democrats running for office.
Most notably, the DCCC attacked Laura Moser, a Bernie Sanders-aligned Democrat running in Texas’ Seventh Congressional District, just outside Houston. Viewing Moser as “too risky to run against the Republican incumbent,” the DCCC released an opposition research memo highlighting anti-Texan statements Moser made in the past. The plan backfired — Moser survived the first round of the primary into a runoff election.
The Democratic Party, which is seemingly inclusive to a fault, is “failing to understand the shifting progressive electorate.” DCCC operatives have been accused of “rolodexing” candidates — only backing Democratic candidates who can presumably raise $250,000 from the contacts stored in their phone. This is the antithesis of “grassroots politics,” a domain that Democrats ironically proudly call their heritage. Policies that hold the ability to self-fund above anything else ultimately snuff out ascending and diverse talent within the party.
Most damaging, it very often ends with Democrats trotting out bland and centrist establishment candidates, often uninspiring retreads, that American voters are increasingly hesitant to support. The DCCC continually opposes the new progressivism that inspired voters when Bernie Sanders ran in 2016 — a platform that opposed Trump’s world view, but still resonated with his base.
Remember, Sanders won the presidential primaries in the heart of Trump’s America — Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia. According to Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s own pollster, had Sanders been the party candidate, he would have won the general election.
“I think Sanders would have had the ability to reach a lot of the less than college-educated, low-income white voters,” Fabrizio said.
As socialist-leaning Jew from Vermont, Sanders has never exactly been a classically orthodox candidate for a national election. Yet, his message and world view struck a chord with the American people.
The reason isn’t mystifying.
He preached some of the same core principles that Trump did: elevate working people by allowing a living wage, take on Wall Street, reel in corporate greed, improve the American healthcare system. While nearly every piece of legislation passed in the Trump administration has run counter to these aims, it’s undeniable that the rhetoric worked. Democrats hold no unequivocal platform for these issues that transcend red and blue regions. The establishment is also working hard to tamp down the bold proposals offered by its own progressive wing.
This week’s passage of a bill that relaxed financial regulations on major banks show just how tone-deaf Democrats have become — and how deeply divided the party is entering mid-term elections. Seventeen Democratic senators voted for the bill, which rolled back significant aspects of the Dodd-Frank regulatory law, enacted in response to the 2008 financial crisis. The backlash was immediate. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D – MA) attacked several members of her caucus. Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, went out of her way to essentially call Warren an out-of-touch coastal liberal. As his party squabbled around him, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D – NY) remained stone silent. His office refused to offer a comment, even after it was revealed that he received over 125,000 signatures from progressive groups advocating he block or amend the bill.
On Twitter, Warren cryptically promised the American people that “soon — maybe not today, or next week, or even in the next election,” Americans would finally get a government that works for the people. So much for party unity.
A failure to understand the American voter was Hillary Clinton’s Achilles heel. In two years, the Democratic establishment has changed very little. Infighting has increased, the resistance to progressive solutions has strengthened, the official party line is still composed of cheesy bromides and vague centrist policies.
Perhaps this enthusiasm gap will hold. Very possibly, the mid-term elections will unfold exactly as the pollsters predict — the anti-Trump animus will sweep Democrats into the House, and possibly, the Senate.
But, how long will it last?
Without a unifying message, without a strived-for future, without a world view, how long will it be until Americans are dissatisfied and disheartened again? How long will it be until they are again alienated from their handpicked establishment representatives?
These mid-term elections will shape and hone the Democratic strategy for the 2020 election and the agenda of the party moving forward. At this point, what that agenda will look like is anyone’s guess.