The loss in last week’s special congressional election in Georgia produced predictable hand-wringing and finger-pointing inside the Democratic Party. It also raised anew a question that has troubled the party through a period in which it has lost political ground. Simply put: Do Democrats have a message?
Right now, the one discernible message is opposition to President Trump. That might be enough to get through next year’s midterm elections, though some savvy Democratic elected officials doubt it. What’s needed is a message that attracts voters beyond the blue-state base of the party.
The defeat in Georgia came in a district that was always extremely challenging. Nonetheless, the loss touched off a hunt for scapegoats. Some Democrats, predictably, blamed the candidate, Jon Ossoff, as failing to capitalize on a flood of money and energy among party activists motivated to send a message of opposition to the president. He may have had flaws, but he and the Democrats turned out lots of voters. There just weren’t enough of them.
Other critics went up the chain of command and leveled their criticism at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She has held her party together in the House through many difficult fights — ask veterans of the Obama administration — but she also has become a prime target for GOP ad makers as a symbol of the Democrats’ liberal and bicoastal leanings. Pelosi, a fighter, has brushed aside the criticism.
Perhaps Democrats thought things would be easier because of Trump’s rocky start. His presidency has produced an outpouring of anger among Democrats, but will that be enough to bring about a change in the party’s fortunes?
History says a president with approval ratings as low as Trump’s usually sustain substantial midterm losses. That could be the case in 2018, particularly if the Republicans end up passing a health-care bill that, right now, is far more unpopular than Obamacare. But Trump has beaten the odds many times in his short political career. What beyond denunciations of the Republicans as heartless will the Democrats have to say to voters?
Though united in vehement opposition to the president, Democrats do not speak with one voice. Fault lines and fissures exist between the ascendant progressive wing at the grass roots and those Democrats who remain more business-friendly. While these differences are not as deep as those seen in Trump’s Republican Party, that hasn’t yet generated a compelling or fresh message to take to voters who aren’t already sold on the party.
Hillary Clinton, whose rhetoric often sounded more poll-tested than authentic, never found that compelling message during her 2016 campaign. She preferred to run a campaign by demonizing Trump and, as a result, drowned out her economic platform. This was a strategic gamble for which she paid a high price.
The absence of a convincing economic message did not start with Clinton. Former president Barack Obama struggled with the same during his 2012 reelection. He wanted to claim credit for a steady but slow recovery while acknowledging forthrightly that many Americans were not benefiting from the growth. It was a muddle at best, but he was saved by the fact that Mitt Romney couldn’t speak to those stressed voters either. In 2016, however, Trump did.
Clinton’s loss forced Democrats to confront their deficiencies among white working-class voters and the vast areas between the coasts that flipped in Trump’s direction. Their defection from the Democratic Party began well before Trump, but until 2016, Democrats thought they could overcome that problem by tapping other voters. Trump showed the limits of that strategy.
The Georgia loss put a focus on a different type of voter, the well-educated suburbanites, particularly those who don’t live in deep-blue states. While losing ground among working-class whites, Democrats have been gaining support among white voters with college degrees. In the fall, Clinton advisers believed she would do well enough with those college graduates to overcome projected erosion among those without college educations. She fell short of expectations, however, allowing Trump to prevail in the pivotal Midwest battlegrounds.
The Georgia district is the Republican-held district with the highest percentage of college-educated residents. Ossoff tried to win over those suburban voters with a moderate message on economic issues, but it wasn’t powerful or persuasive enough to overcome the appeal of the Republican brand in an election in which the GOP made Pelosi-style Democrats a focus. Loyalty to party was strong enough to allow Karen Handel to prevail.
The long-running debate over the Democrats’ message probably will intensify as the party looks to 2018 and especially to 2020. It is a debate that the party needs. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, writing in the American Prospect, sees a problem that goes beyond white working-class voters to those within the Democratic base who also were left behind by the post-2008 economic gains. He argues that the party’s problem is with working-class voters of all types, not just whites.
Greenberg has long been critical of the tepidness of the party’s economic message and puts some of the blame on Obama. He believes the former president’s economic message in 2012 and 2016 focused on progress in the recovery largely to the exclusion of the widespread pain that still existed. “That mix of heralding ‘progress’ while bailing out those responsible for the crisis and the real crash in incomes for working Americans was a fatal brew for Democrats,” he argues.
For progressives, the answer to this problem is clear: a boldly liberal message that attacks big corporations and Wall Street and calls for a significant increase in government’s role in reducing income and wealth inequality. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been aggressive in promoting exactly that, as he did during the 2016 campaign, with calls for a big investment in infrastructure and free college tuition at public colleges and universities. He has said he intends to introduce legislation he calls “Medicare for All.”
That kind of message probably will spark more internal debate, particularly among Democrats from swing districts or swing states. It points to one of the biggest challenges Democrats face as they move beyond being the anti-Trump party. That is the question of whether they are prepared to make a robust and appealing case on behalf of government in the face of continuing skepticism among many of the voters they are trying to win over. Trump might not succeed in draining the swamp, but he has tapped into sentiments about Washington that Democrats ignore at their peril.
Nor can Democrats ignore voters’ concerns about immigration. The Democrats’ message on immigration and immigrant rights (and some other cultural issues) plays well in many blue states, but it draws a much more mixed reception in those parts of the country where Trump turned the election in his direction.
In this divided era, it’s easy for either party to look at the other and conclude the opposition is in worse shape. That’s the trap for Democrats right now as they watch Trump struggle in office. But Democrats are in the minority in the House, Senate, governorships and state legislatures. Clinton may have won the popular vote, but that proved about as satisfying as coming close while losing last week in Georgia. It’s no substitute for the real thing. If continued frustration with losing doesn’t prompt rethinking about the message, what will?
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the education level in Georgia’s 6th congressional District, site of a recent special election. The article should have said it is the Republican-held district with the highest percentage of college-educated residents.