We should never discourage candidates of either party from presenting voters with clear, specific policy proposals. But in off-year elections, pundits are wrong to insist a full-blown policy agenda is a necessity for the party that’s out of power. That might be unfortunate, but it’s the political reality.
Republicans didn’t have much of a coherent message in 2010 or 2014 other than “Repeal Obamacare.” That got them the House and then the Senate majority. In Tuesday’s elections around the country, in diverse races up and down the ticket, the unifying theme was “Had enough?” or, even more blunt, “Vote against Trump.” And it worked beautifully.
According to exit polls, 57% of Virginia voters said they disapproved of the job [President] Trump was doing. Of those voters, 87% voted for [Ralph] Northam.
Asked what message they were sending with their vote, 34% said they were voting to express disapproval of the president—twice as many as said they were voting to express support for him.
“The level of intensity, the level of antipathy to Trump is so palpable,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.). “The desire of our base and independents troubled by Trump is just red-hot to do something. So when you offer them something, like an election, they came out in droves.”
Yes, Virginia Gov.-elect Northam ran on expanding Medicaid, but even that was a rebuke to GOP efforts to slash Medicaid and repeal Obamacare. However, his overarching message during the race, reiterated in his victory speech, could not have been clearer. “Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart,” he said Tuesday night. Normalcy. Civility. Responsible governance. That is the message, my Democratic friends.
The message against Trump practically writes itself. He’s incompetent, destructive, anti-democratic — and these Republicans are enabling him every step of the way. The easy part about that argument is that Republicans prove it true day in and day out — and they even say so.
Asked by Fox News whether Republicans had a choice about sticking with Trump, Ryan said: “We already made that choice. We’re with Trump. We already made that choice. That’s a choice we made at the beginning of the year. That’s a choice we made during the campaign. We ran on a joint agenda with Donald Trump.” Now, if that doesn’t show up in an ad or two, Democrats will be throwing away a political gift.
Ryan is right, of course. Republicans did make a choice to tolerate Trump’s bigotry; to defend his attacks on democratic institutions; to enable a bait-and-switch scheme that veered far from Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric; to countenance gross conflicts of interest and receipt of prohibited emoluments from foreign sources; to play defense for him on the Russia scandal rather than put country first in shoring up our democratic election system; to rubber-stamp extreme and unqualified judges and executive branch nominees; to embark on a reckless scheme to repeal Obamacare with no viable alternative; to cheer the Muslim ban, which was repeatedly struck down by the courts; to shrug at Trump’s ignorance and incessant lying; and to applaud policies of protectionism and immigration exclusion that many know are injurious to our economy. Republicans sure have made their choice.
Midterms, unlike presidential elections, are almost entirely a referendum on the party that holds the White House. In 2018, the main issue will be Trump — and also the Republicans’ spinelessness in refusing to confront or check him. In such an election, declaring simply that Democrats won’t countenance and enable Trump’s reprehensible conduct and appalling rhetoric will get Democrats very far — maybe even to majorities in one or both houses.
If Democrats really need to throw in some positive proposals, they can run on the promises that Trump broke — an infrastructure bill, an assault on government corruption and a full commitment (with funding) to fight the opioid abuse epidemic. If Democrats make this clear, keep alive righteous anger in defense of democracy and keep making it about Trump, they should do quite well.