The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats aren’t just ‘running against Trump.’ Why do people think they are?

Ask any reporter what his or her most hated question is, and we'll tell you: It's asking “why isn't the mainstream media covering this?” while linking to a story from the mainstream media.

This year started off with a doozy, when congressman-turned-CNN pundit Jack Kingston tweeted a link to a Fox News item about a Hillary Clinton donor offering $500,000 to help women who had stories of sexual misconduct by Donald Trump. “Another story buried by #MSM in 2017,” tweeted Kingston.

The New York Times had broken that story and put it on the front page.

I've got two overlapping theories as to why people constantly do this. One: For too many people, “why isn't the media covering this” is a way of saying “why is this not currently on the TV I'm watching?” Two: Too many people have a built-in suspicion about the media, which is that it covers up “the real news.” And in the fight between reality and suspicion, reality usually loses.

The same phenomenon is responsible for one of 2017's most persistent political ideas, which is unlikely to stop this year — the idea that the Democratic Party is running on nothing but opposition to an unpopular President Trump. As a beat reporter who covers Democrats and the left, the gulf between what's happening there, and what is perceived to be happening, is wide and remarkably getting wider.

Why? To be fair, the Democrats did not copy the Republican playbook from 2012, and follow an election loss by conducting an “autopsy” of what they needed to fix. The Growth and Opportunity Project is remembered for recommending exactly what the party did not do in 2016, like a proposal to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” But its very existence drove news, intrigued columnists, and generated some stories about what Republicans stood for.

The defeated Democrats of 2016 handled this differently, with a hotly contested race for chair of the Democratic National Committee, and later with a “Better Deal” platform that would set out what House and Senate Democrats believed.

Both of those stories got coverage, and both were revealing. In the DNC race, every serious candidate argued that the party needed to stick with mainstream liberal policies but spend more time on grass-roots activism. In the Better Deal, Democrats endorsed a $15 minimum wage, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, and reforms that would make it easier to organize unions.

But little of the conversation about “what Democrats stand for” mentions any of this. After winning a spectacular upset in Alabama, Sen.-elect Doug Jones's (D-Ala.) pollster told the Los Angeles Times that Democrats “can't just be anti-Trump.” In a column pitching six policies Democrats needed to embrace, former secretary of labor Robert Reich argued that the party “can't just be anti-Trump.” In an interview last month, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) reported that she's often asked “so what do you guys stand for? What are you about?”

Democrat Doug Jones became the first Democratic senator elected in Alabama since 1992, and exit polls show what voters propelled him to victory. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: John Bazemore/The Washington Post)

When Democrats say this, they're often setting up an argument — the party, they say, should rebrand itself by embracing their policy preferences. But the echo effect of all this is a discussion about what Democrats stand for that makes no mention of what the party has said it stands for. In one recent example, a rambling Paul Emerson and Paul Hodes column at HuffPost, the two observers (with long roots in Democratic politics) argued again and again that Democrats needed something passionate to run on. What was that? They could not say.

Trump won with an emotionally resonant message that struck at the core of the fear and anxiety of the American electorate. He talked about rebuilding America that everyone who leaves his or her house can see is in desperate need of rebuilding, from roads, to bridges, to tunnels, to name a few examples of our crumbling infrastructure. Hillary and the Dems talked about various government regulations and programs, and the usual smorgasbord of issues that carried no emotionally resonate energy or believability.

If you can figure out the difference between “talking about rebuilding America” and proposing government programs that would build up infrastructure, good for you. But what was the response to this lazily reasoned column? The authors were booked on “Morning Joe,” for a similarly rambling segment where they concluded that the party must “get down to the grass roots” and reach out to “rural red state voters,” two things every Democrat agrees with.

“A Better Deal is as firm as jello,” said Emerson. “The Democratic Party is not providing relevant messages to drive them to the polls at any level right now.”

It was a strange observation at the end of a year when Democrats did quite well, picking up a Senate seat, a governor's mansion (in New Jersey), and dozens of the state legislative seats where they'd been wiped out after 2008. The stranger part of the argument, however, was that neither Hodes nor Emerson cited anything Democrats had proposed. It was enough to argue that the “messaging” was not penetrating.

Why pick on Hodes and Emerson? Because the “Democrats can't just be anti-Trump” feedback loop works even if only pundits are feeding it. In a new article for Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson writes that “there are literally people advocating that Democrats should run flavorless candidates who sound like Republicans.” These people: Politico columnist Bill Scher and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, neither of whom are elected Democrats. At one point, Robinson cites Peter Whoriskey's new Washington Post story on the fate of older workers who've retired from companies that never really offered pensions.

The Post discusses how the decline of pension plans has meant that many workers now face the prospect of remaining employed well into their final years of life, never retiring, never paying off their mortgages. What does the Democratic Party have to offer these people? What is it proposing to do to fix this? Even the reworked “populist” messaging the party tried out after 2016 did little more than emphasize “jobs.”

But Democrats' reworked messaging — I assume this is a reference to the “Better Deal” — does include an idea for building up pensions. The Butch Lewis Act, introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and then folded into the Better Deal, would create a Pension Rehabilitation Administration, which would invest money to fund any shortfalls in public sector pensions. (Companies would pay back into the PRA with the extra money they got from the investments.) In 2016, President Barack Obama suggested increasing Social Security payments as another way to fight poverty among the elderly, an idea that had been proposed by Brown and adopted during the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

That Social Security concept was an example of how parties usually generate their messages. They pitch ideas; they write bills; they fight in public about what can pass and what can't. Democrats actually started this process much earlier than Republicans did in previous cycles; the 1994 “Contract With America,” which mostly compiled and repackaged bills that had been stalled by Democrats, was rolled out six weeks before that year's election.

Robinson is right about one thing. In 2016, while Hillary Clinton proposed scores of new policies, her general election campaign ended up focusing on the unsuitability and scandals of her opponent. Democrats who watched Republicans squirm when asked what they thought about Trump realized, belatedly, that all the time spent talking about him was time not making a positive argument for Democrats. Clinton actually beat Trump by 23 points among voters who wanted a “president who cares about people like me.” But that advantage was lower than the one Democrats enjoyed in 2008 and 2012.

Since then, Democrats have argued plenty, in public, about what they'll do if voters trust them again. “Why isn't the media covering it?” We are, and it's a lot more interesting than the sleepy debate on how they “can't just be anti-Trump.”