The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A majority says the Democratic Party stands for nothing — except the only thing that matters in 2018

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The new Washington Post-ABC News poll is bad for President Trump, but one number is raising some eyebrows when it comes to Democrats.

It asked whether people thought the Democratic Party stands for something or just stands against Trump, and people chose the latter by a 52-to-37 margin. So that is a majority of registered voters who think the opposition party isn't defined by anything except opposition — that the Democratic Party has no real message.

This isn't out of nowhere. Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, seemed to confirm the majority's belief in an Associated Press story that just happened to pop the same morning the Post-ABC poll did. “That message is being worked on,” the congressman said. “We're doing everything we can to simplify it, but at the same time provide the meat behind it as well. So that's coming together now.”

Then there are those special-election losses — especially that backbreaker in Georgia, in which there was some Bernie Sanders-related consternation about whether Jon Ossoff was progressive enough.

It's a bit of a mess. And it's a mess that's complicated by the fact that Democrats are really good at being disorganized and also don't really have a leader to speak of at the moment. But here's what else we can say: It probably doesn't matter.

Republicans ran for years on a message of “Obama is bad” and “undo what Obama did” and it worked out pretty well for them in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Charlie Cook had this prescient quote in Rolling Stone in March 2010, when Republicans were actually in a pretty similar spot to where Democrats are right now and people were wondering what the message was:

“Does the Republican Party lack a clear leader? Absolutely. Do they lack a positive message? Of course. Do their demographics suck? Yeah,” Cook said. “But in a midterm election, none of that matters. Because midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power. And to throw one side out, you've got to throw the other side back in.”

You could literally write that first part about Democrats — word for word.

Republicans would eventually settle upon a Contract with America-esque plan, labeled the “Pledge to America,” in September 2010. It was a minor story at the time, and was quickly forgotten even after Republicans took the House that year.

Fast-forward to the 2014 election cycle, and Democrats had grown fond of labeling the GOP “obstructionists” and the “Party of No” — opposing President Barack Obama out of spite, they argued. They seized upon then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) statement that his top political goal was to make Obama a one-term president. And it was a message that seemed to take; a July 2013 CBS News poll asked whether Republicans' opposition to Obama was driven more by policy disagreements or to stop Democrats from gaining a political advantage. People said the GOP was more about stopping Obama than policy by a 64-to-28 margin. For Democrats, it was a pretty even split.

Did the GOP wind up with a hugely novel platform ahead of the 2014 election in which they wiped the floor with the Democrats? Of course not. Did the GOP ever settle on an Obamacare replacement to run on proactively? Nope, and when they finally won control of Congress and the presidency in November 2016, they still didn't have their alternative ironed out. This was the thing they ran on for seven years, and they never had to figure out what they were running on besides repeal.

So why does this keep coming up? Part of the reason is that people within the party truly care about policy and about its direction. And there will always be those pushing for the party to move more in the direction of Sanders (I-Vt.) or perhaps to moderate on certain things to try to appeal to rural voters.

There are also politicians who see a chance to make a name for themselves this way. It just sounds good to say, “Our party needs to stand for something!” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was big on telling the GOP it couldn't just be the “Party of No.” Bobby Jindal was going to be the ideas candidate in a party that apparently had none. And then the GOP nominated Donald Trump, the guy who was the most in-your-face, anti-Obama candidate on the debate stage — the guy who lacked any real coherent ideology or ideas of his own.

The point is that we've been here before. Do Democrats need to figure out who they are and what they stand for? Many in the party would say yes. And from a good-government standpoint, it's nice to tell people where you stand and what your priorities are. But Democrats probably don't need to be anything more than the anti-Trump party right now — not really. The 2018 election will largely be a referendum on Trump, and right now Americans say they prefer a Democratic Congress to a Republican one by between 5 and 10 points.

That's pretty decent shape to be in for a party with no ethos.