Off to the Races

Dems Should Worry About Long-Term Direction, Not 2018 Message

The midterm elections will be a referendum on the party in power, not the minority.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 1, 2018, 8 p.m.

It’s always interesting what people and political parties do and don’t choose to worry about. It’s a source of never-ending amazement to me that so many Democrats wring their hands about their party lacking a message or a clear leader, while ignoring the broader direction their party is taking.

“Democrats can’t win majorities in the House or Senate unless they come up with a strong message.” That’s something that I have heard at least 200 people say, including some who ought to know better. Midterm elections are never about a party that has no power. They never have and never will be about a party that doesn’t have the White House, majorities in the House or Senate, or for that matter, control of governorships or state legislative chambers. No offense, Democrats, but everything is not about you.

The related argument is that Democrats need to have ideas, proposals—an agenda. But if the party that holds the White House, House, and Senate, 33 governorships, and the majority of state legislative chambers and seats is doing almost everything imaginable to self-destruct, why would the opposition party want to do anything other than have a referendum on the party in power? Why wouldn’t Democrats just get out of the way? If Democrats win a majority in the House and/or Senate, then they have to come up with a plan, but that is a problem for them on another day.

At the same time, I do wonder why Democrats aren’t more concerned with what is going on inside their party. As this column noted in January, the loathing that conservatives and Republicans had for President Obama effectively led to the creation of the tea-party movement and a radicalization of a substantial element of the GOP. Their hatred of Obama meant checking reason and rational behavior at the door. The establishment—the adults in the GOP—lost control, allowing the dumpster fire that has engulfed the Republican Party. What Republican primary voters do in a number of GOP nomination fights could end up costing them their majority in the Senate. For an example, look no further than Arizona.

For Democrats, there is no reason to believe that the number of liberals who despise President Trump won’t radicalize a large element of the party, creating what James Napoli, in The Huffington Post, once called an “herbal tea party.” When I first wrote this two months ago, I thought the heads of some of my liberal friends would explode, but it bears repeating. Democrats should worry about the prospect of engorged primary electorates this year nominating exotic candidates who may not be optimal for general elections and thus could keep the party from winning House and Senate majorities. Or Democrats could end up with majorities that are as out of sync with the country as the majorities in place today.

It’s a good bet that Democrats will have a 2020 presidential field that at least starts out as big as the GOP’s was in 2015 and 2016. At a dinner the other night with former political directors of one of the Democratic campaign committees, none of us had a clue who would win their party’s presidential nomination, or even what frame of mind Democratic voters would be in as they make the choice. Will the party take a hard left, as many activists would like, or might Democrats put forward a contrast with Trump—a reassuring figure whom voters could envision having a calming affect on the current chaos in Washington? It may not have been a coincidence that the winning candidate in the Virginia governor race was Democrat Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered, nonthreatening physician with a good bedside manner—very different from the current occupant of the White House.

For much of the 2016 campaign, an election between the two most disliked party nominees in history, the focus was on Trump, and he was running behind. But in the final few weeks—after the last debate, the Access Hollywood tapes were made public, and any chance that the real estate magnate could win seemed to evaporate—the spotlight shifted to Hillary Clinton. The election became a referendum on her, and she lost.

My hunch is that a November 2020 electorate might prefer a steady hand at the till, someone who could allow the election to be a referendum on Trump. But Democrats are more likely to go for a candidate running straight out of the party base, with the potential that the election could become a referendum on that candidate rather than the current, wildly unpopular president.

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