An Unnecessary Recent History Lesson
In 2016, the Democrats found some inventive ways to lose an election. Right now, while we are on the verge off the midterms and starting to think seriously about 2020, it is important to reflect again on what happened in 2016. (I know. This has been rehashed to death. Bear with me here.)
It wasn’t pretty. There were MANY reasons that the Democrats lost the 2016 election, but many of them were out of their control. These are the big ones that were under party’s control but did not address properly.
They allowed a non-Democrat into their primary process. To be fair, there was really no way to stop Bernie Sanders from running for the Democratic nomination. It turns out that you have to be a party member to sign a nominating petition, but you don’t have to be a member of the party to run for that party’s nomination. Someone should look into that. Bernie couldn’t even sign his own nominating petition because he’s not a Democrat.
Of course, the Democratic leadership went and made a bad deal worse by trying to freeze Sanders out of the convention…and then his followers made things even worse by refusing to join ranks with the party’s duly anointed candidate.
The Democrats failed to put on a good pre-game show by NOT loading up the primary process with a wide selection of somewhat credible candidates the way the Republicans did. Because the eventual Democratic candidate was a foregone conclusion, no credible candidates even bothered to throw their hats in the ring. If Bernie Sanders had not decided to run for the Democratic nomination, the entire Democratic primary campaign would have been a crashing bore. Wait. It turned out to be a crashing bore anyway, especially when compared to the Republicqan free-for-all.
The Republican strategy of having everyone and his uncle running for the nomination quadrupled the amount of free air time that the Republican party garnered through its lengthy and wide-open primary campaign. It also opened the door for Donald Trump. Had Trump only faced two or three serious candidates instead of the clown-car the Republicans gave us, he probably would not have won the Republican nomination.
There were 17 Republican candidates in their first debate, so many they had to break up the debate into two sessions. The Democrats had five candidates in their first debate, two of whom quit before the second debate. By the third debate, it was two-person race between Sanders and Clinton.
The Democrats ran a candidate with so much baggage she couldn’t get out of her own way. Look, let’s face it. No matter how you try to repackage it, Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate who ran a terrible campaign. She ran like she had already won, forgetting Lyndon Johnson’s rule for winning elections: always run as though you’re losing.
There were too many elephants in the room. (I’m not going to enumerate them. They are all too obvious now.) You do not win presidential campaigns by trying not to address the herd of elephants in the room. The Republican propaganda machine was highly effective at painting a very negative image of the Democratic candidate, but Clinton was simply not able to deliver the knockout punches she needed to lay Trump out and refute the lies that were being told about her. Unfortunately, some of the lies turned out to be embarrassingly true.
Trump, on the other hand, was campaigning against Hillary for months before Hillary became the actual candidate. Hillary COULDN’T campaign against Trump because it wasn’t really clear that Trump was going to be the Republican candidate until more than halfway through the primary process. She still couldn’t unload on Trump because that might have tipped the scales against him…and Clinton’s team WANTED to run against Trump, who turned out to be the only Republican she couldn’t beat.
Picking an unknown for the vice presidency. Unless you lived in Virginia or an adjoining state, you probably never heard of Tim Kaine until the day that Hillary Clinton pulled his name out of the hat. That’s often the case with vice presidents, as it was with Sarah Palin. No one knows who they are before they’re nominated but, unlike Sarah Palin, we still didn’t know who Tim Kaine was on the day after the election.
The vice presidential candidate is supposed to be the junkyard dog, taking on the other party’s presidential candidate. Tim Kaine was simply too nice a guy to play that role. It takes a real bastard to confront a real bastard.
The obvious choice, Bernie Sanders, would not have been much better. Actually, he would have been worse. In addition to being in disagreement with much of the Democratic party platform, Sanders carries three large negatives around with him: calling himself a Democratic Socialist, being from Brooklyn and being Jewish. (If you don’t think that being Jewish is an impediment to national political ambitions, then you have not been paying attention to what is going on in this country. Please note: I am myself a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn. No bigotry here.)
No, this isn’t about being against having a woman president. It’s about Hillary Clinton. There’s long list of very effective women leaders, with Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Angela Merkel being head and shoulders above their male contemporaries. I would have voted for three out of that four. Hillary Clinton doesn’t measure up to their standards.
Clinton’s defenders always blow up at this point, saying that Clinton actually won the election, meaning that she won the popular vote. That’s true. Clinton did win the popular vote but she won the wrong race. The only race that matters in the United States is the electoral college race, which she lost by not paying enough attention to several key states where she could have turned the tide, if she had listened to Bill or the many other people who were trying to tell her that she was making a big mistake. Instead, she was seduced by the polls that showed her winning the popular vote, a bush league mistake if there ever was one.
So What’s Different in 2018?
In two words: NOT MUCH.
This year, in what has been billed (incorrectly) as the most important midterm election in American history, the Democratic party absolutely failed to present the electorate with a national campaign, leaving it up to the individual candidates to put together their own campaign strategies.
The disorganization of the National Democratic Committee is painfully obvious. The party leadership is out of touch with the party rank and file, and even more out of touch with the electorate.
The Democrats have to face up to the fact that a substantial percentage of the electorate actually LIKES some of the things that Trump has done or is in the process of doing. What they don’t like is Donald Trump himself, the person, rather than the president. The Democrats have to start acknowledging that Trump isn’t always wrong (even a stopped clock is right twice a day) and focus instead on the really bad things he’s doing to the economy and the country.
That’s a problem because the only way to combat a gargantuan personality like Donald Trump is with another gargantuan personality, and the Democrats don’t have one. They don’t have an FDR or an LBJ waiting in the wings to take up the Democratic banner and run with it. What they do have is a bunch of wannabes who don’t have either Roosevelt’s charm and charisma or Johnson’s true grit.
Will the Next Contestant Enter and Sign In Please?
The closing months of the midterm elections is when the frontrunners for the next presidential contest traditionally make their initial moves toward seeking the nomination. (Donald Trump started his 2016 in 2012. He started his 2020 campaign the day after the election.) Usually, these are people who are NOT running for anything in the midterms.
Nevertheless, no single Democratic leader has emerged as a national spokesperson for the Democratic party during the 2018 electioneering.
Mr. Obama has tried. He’s been crisscrossing the country trying to drum up support for Democratic candidates, but he simply has not been able to generate the attention grabbing headlines…because Trump is managing the media through his non-stop tweeting. Obama’s also not eligible to run in 2020, and therefore was taking up valuable time and space that should have been occupied by people who do have a shot at the 2020 nomination, if there were any on the horizon.
Chuck Schumer has tried, but Schumer is so bland that it’s hard to remember that he’s the Minority Leader of the Senate. Remember Harry Reid? Of course, you do, because Harry Reid was memorable. Chuck Schumer has about as much charisma as a chocolate eclair.
The Clintons have been maintaining a low profile this year, still under the clouds that Trump and his henchmen have cast over Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, is quietly discouraging talk about her running again in 2020. Running a failed candidate again in the next election is a prescription for disaster and she know that.
Nancy Pelosi has been seldom seen, and that’s a good thing because she rubs people — including dyed in the wool Democrats — the wrong way more often than she helps to make the Democratic case.
Joe Biden is out there pitching his brand, but his ship has sailed and no one is really taking him seriously as a 2020 candidate. Because no one is taking him seriously for 2020 (too old and too closely associated with the Obama era), he is not able to set a national agenda for the Democratic party.
In fact, the only people who have succeeded in speaking truth to power in 2018 have been Elizabeth Warren and good old Bernie Sanders, two mavericks who are obviously not much liked by the party professionals that really run the party. Warren has slid back into the news with her silly DNA test. Bernie is really going to be too old in 2020, but then so is Trump.
This left the Democrats with 35 separate senatorial campaigns and 435 congressional campaigns across the country. In many cases, those 435 congressional campaigns put the Democrats up against Republicans who are much better than the Democrats are at framing local issues.
On the other hand, the Republicans didn’t have to campaign on an a never ending array of local issues. Instead, they were all able to campaign on the same platform: supporting Donald Trump.
Evidence: How many Republican candidates running for House seats have disavowed Donald Trump?
The answer is none, of course. In 2016, one Congressional candidate, Martha Roby of Alabama did in fact disavow the Republican presidential candidate after the Access Hollywood videotape was released. This year, Ms. Roby has accepted Donald Trump’s support in her re-election bid. The only Republicans who are publicly bad mouthing Trump are the ones who aren’t running for anything now and probably won’t be running for anything in 2020 either.
The Republicans are using 2018 as a plebiscite for Donald Trump’s presidency, campaigning on the platform of supporting Donald Trump’s policies and protecting Trump from the possibility of even more embarrassing investigations should the Democrats regain control of the House.
What the Democrats should have done was exactly what all the pundits warned them against: accepting the challenge and making every congressional campaign a direct challenge to Trump’s presidency because that’s exactly how Trump has set up this election season. He’s been making comments designed to elicit angry retorts from Congressional candidates. His comments after the Tree of Life Massacre are a case in point. Announcing that he intends to end birthright citizenship in the United States by executive order is another one.
The Democrats should be challenging Trump instead of leaving it to the media to do their job for them. Maybe they think they are being statesperson-like when they don’t pick up the gauntlets that Trump keeps throwing down. If that’s the case, they are very, very wrong, because that’s exactly what the “none of the above” voters want to see…take charge people, taking charge.
Signs of the Times
There were two moments in the 2016 campaign that encapsulated the losing attitude that the Democrats brought with them into that campaign.
The first one came during the Democratic National Convention, when Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”
That’s an excellent idea, if you’re running for senior class president. It’s a really bad idea when you are running for president of the United States, because the people — you know, the voters — want to see how much sand the candidates have in their craws, how much tensile strength they are going to bring to the job.
The second moment was during the second presidential debate, when a glowering Donald Trump loomed behind Hillary Clinton while she was speaking.
This was a golden moment for Clinton. The director who was running the debate should have moved Trump back to where he was supposed to be but he or she didn’t do that. The moderator should have told Trump to return to his place and get out of Clinton’s shot, but that didn’t happen. The director could also have switched to a different camera angle that would have taken Trump out of the shot. That didn’t happen either. (Yes, I know the candidates agreed to a format that allowed them to walk around the room to speak directly to members of the audience, more evidence of a really stupid campaign staff.)
Their failures gave Hillary a chance to do something akin to what Ronald Reagan did to George H.W. Bush during their big debate: embarrass the shit out her opponent.
Mrs. Clinton knew that Trump was standing behind her. In fact, she admitted being to being “discombobulated” by Trump’s behavior. In her post-campaign book, “What Happened,” she admitted to being disconcerted and thought about saying, ‘Back up, you creep. Get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women, but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.’”
She THOUGHT about it, but she didn’t DO it…and that was the moment that she lost the election (as I said at the time.) Trump had given her a golden opportunity to crystalize the campaign by putting him into his place both physically and metaphorically. Instead, she was thrown off her pace by Trump’s behavior and while the professional pundits claimed that she won the debates, it didn’t look that way to me. To me, she looked weak.
Isn’t This All Water Under Bridge? Why Cry Over Spilt Milk?
The reason that you conduct post-mortems after a failed election bid is to figure out what went wrong so you never do that again but it is happening again. The Democrats didn’t learn the lesson.
What the Democrats needed in 2018 was a national spokesperson — a junkyard dog — to rally the troops, to take on Trump and debate him online and in the media, trading Tweet for Tweet if that’s what it takes to get the job done.
A lot of people are trying to refute them…and that’s the real problem. When a lot of people are shouting all at the same time in a crowded space, you don’t understand a word they’re saying and you just block out the noise. A single, clear, strong voice was needed…and the Democrats didn’t provide one.
As a result, the Democrats have been fighting 470 separate, individual campaigns while the Republicans rallied around a unified theme of supporting Donald Trump.
At best, the Democrats will eek out a thin victory in the House. They have to defend all 193 current pick up at least 26 more seats, seven of which are currently vacant and therefore have no incumbent running for that vacancy, a slight advantage for the Democrats. In addition, the Democrats have to address the Blue Dog Disadvantage by picking up an additional 18 seats. (The Blue Dog Democrats are a self-identified coalition of conservative Democrats who cannot be depended upon to vote with the Democratic majority on crucial make or break issues, and especially on lifestyle issues.)
So, a solid Democratic victory in the House requires that the Democrats pick up 44 seats. Twenty-six seats merely gives them the Speaker’s seat. They need 44 seats to get anything significant done over the next two years.
At worst, they could lose seats in both houses of Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida. Democrats agreed that they may lose Heitkamp in North Dakota and McCaskill in Missouri, Republicans are conceding that they may have lost Jeff Flake’s former seat in Arizona as well as Dean Heller in Nevada. (It is interesting that seats owned or formerly owned by more liberal Republicans are the ones most likely to fall into Democratic hands, which makes sense if it reflects a distinct population shift which is indeed the fact in both states.)
Nevertheless, before the returns are counted, the Democrats have already failed by failing to put their best 2020 prospects up for public scrutiny. That’s an opportunity that comes around only once every four years, and the Democrats blew it this year.
Going forward, the Democrats need some fresh blood for 2020. They need a candidate who isn’t shopworn, who doesn’t have any excess baggage, and who can take the fight to the Republicans, standing toe to toe with Donald Trump to beat him at his own game.
No, I have no idea who that might be. All the Democrats have to choose from right now are a collection of Hubert Humphreys and Eugene McCarthys, with a couple of Mike Dukakises thrown in for comedic relief.
I do know what the Democratic candidate should look like, though. What Democrats need right now is another Harry Truman, a plain spoken, hard-hitting, take no prisoners kind of guy. Now, that would be a real horse race. Unfortunately, Harry Trumans are in short supply these days. The conditions for making a Harry Truman just don’t exist anymore, but I sure do wish we could get him back again. That would be something to see.