Last week saw the Democratic Party save the Affordable Care Act, a remarkable victory for an out-of-power party. Members celebrated in the traditional Democratic way — tumbling into pointless and repetitive infighting, prodded happily along by people (like me) in the media. Watching the latest round of this, I had a question that cut against some of my reportorial interests:
Why do Democrats keep falling for this stuff?
Start with the “abortion litmus test” fight, which is on at least its third iteration since March. It's the same every time — a Democrat (Tom Perez/Nancy Pelosi/Ben Ray Luján) is asked whether the party will make support for abortion rights mandatory for its candidates. Of course not, a Democrat says — as Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, put it, “You need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district.” This comports with our current version of reality, in which the DCCC dutifully spends money every two years to send antiabortion Democratic Reps. Collin C. Peterson (Minn.) and Daniel Lipinski (Ill.) back to Washington.
Continue with the Pelosi Question — the nagging, obvious issue that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will become Speaker of the House if Democrats win next year. McClatchy's Alex Roarty finds, as I have found, that Democrats running in swing districts — including districts Hillary Clinton won last year — can rarely bring themselves to say whether they want Pelosi to be speaker again. Like Roarty, I have tossed this question into every interview with an aspiring Democratic member of Congress; hardly ever has one indicated, without qualification, support for Pelosi.
In both cases, I keep wondering why Democrats can't find the escape hatch. Republicans have had similar problems with messaging very recently, and to a great extent, they've figured them out.
In a word: They pivot.
They start with the shared notion that the media's questions are meant to hurt them, and they find ways to spin the question around.
The Republican version of the Pelosi Question was (and still is) the Trump Question. In 2016, vulnerable Republicans handled questions about their explosive nominee by saying that he had his flaws, but their opponents would be puppets of Hillary Clinton.
It baffles me that no 2018 Democrat can do something similar. Pelosi is unpopular; they can acknowledge right away that they disagree with her. But they never pivot to say that their opponents back Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), whose favorable numbers have tumbled to Pelosian levels, or Donald Trump, who's tumbled even further. Seriously, I've never heard a Democrat do this — they've just internalized that Pelosi is unpopular, so they curl up as if hiding from a hungry bear.
The Republican version of the abortion question? It's asked all the time: Do they support a total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape and incest? After 2012, when two Republican candidates blew winnable Senate races by using the question as a cue to ramble about pregnancies that result from rape, Republicans (led by the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony PAC) actively trained their candidates to pivot. The new answer: Why, exactly, were Democrats so extreme? In 2014, multiple Republicans turned the question around, daring the media to ask Democrats, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) put it, “When is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus?”
Democrats should know by now that they'll be asked whether they have abortion litmus tests for candidates. In almost every case, they can redirect the question by pointing out that even antiabortion Democrats refuse to defund Planned Parenthood; refuse to make the Hyde Amendment permanent (as we saw in a House vote this year); refuse, in other words, to sign onto scores of unpopular antiabortion measures.
Republicans had to lose a series of elections to figure out these pivots; they got lucky with Trump. As a reporter, I benefit tremendously when politicians can't figure a way out of a question. But I'm surprised every time.