By Danielle Ryan*
The expected ‘blue wave’ didn’t materialize for the Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. Perhaps that’s because while the Republicans mostly played successfully to their base, the Democrats ran screaming away from theirs.
Yes, the Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives — a legitimate victory for the party, but they (and the liberal-leaning media) had hoped for, and expected, much more. In the Senate, the party faced serious disappointment, losing three seats and allowing Republicans to expand their control.
When one digs a little deeper and tries to figure out why that huge ‘blue wave’ never broke, it becomes clear that there is a serious strategy problem that the party leadership seems utterly blind to.
We are constantly reminded by the media that Republicans “play to their base,” telling them exactly what they want to hear. How often do we hear anything similar about Democrats? With the DNC establishment, elections become a kind of competition to see who can act least like a Democrat, often alienating the left-wing base, giving them little to get excited about.
Take Senators Joe Donnelly (Indiana) and Claire McCaskill (Missouri) — both incumbent Democrats who lost to Republican challengers on Tuesday night. If you didn’t know Donnelly was a Democrat, you would assume he was a Republican from the campaign ad in which he scaremongers about “socialists” and the “radical left,” professes support for ICE and Trump’s border wall, and quotes Ronald Reagan.
In other words, it’s a standard Republican campaign ad. Donnelly lost because progressive Democrats — and there are a lot of them (remember the Bernie Sanders juggernaut?) — don’t feel energized by wishy-washy Democrats-in- name-only (DINO).
McCaskill also cast herself as a kind of ‘Republican-lite’ candidate, believing it would allow her to scrounge up moderate support. She promised voters she wasn’t just one of those “crazy” left-wing Democrats and stood “100 percent” behind Trump on the issue of the migrant caravan. An undercover reporter for Project Veritas recorded one of her staffers admitting that she was indeed “distancing herself from the party” to win more votes but “people just can’t know” that. It didn’t work — and in fairness to McCaskill, who ran in a state Trump won by a significant margin, maybe nothing would have.
This phenomenon of Democrats trying to act as much like Republicans as possible in the mistaken belief that the ‘middle’ is where all the votes are is a huge part of the reason why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, and the party leadership doesn’t seem to have figured out yet that it is a bad strategy. If people want to vote for someone who sounds like a Republican, they’ll just vote for the Republican.
Speaking of Clinton, she also potentially managed to do some damage in the midterms, despite not even being a candidate. In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum ran a fairly progressive campaign for governor and then decided to do himself absolutely no favors by campaigning with Clinton, despite the fact that her popularity is below the floor in Florida and at a record low across the country in general. It was an inexplicably stupid move for Gillum and did not go unnoticed. Then there’s Obama. He didn’t help either. In fact, most of the candidates he campaigned for lost, too.
To be fair, Gillum ended up losing by only one percentage point. There are two ways to look at that. Republicans, the media and establishment Democrats are probably thinking that he should have toned down his already-mild progressivism. Another way to look at it, however, is that if a mildly progressive Democrat came within one point of beating an opponent with bigger name recognition in an increasingly red state, could a genuinely progressive candidate have won?
Lessons for 2020
Two Democratic newcomers to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, shocked the establishment by beating 10-term Democrat incumbents in their district primaries. The legions of activists that Bernie Sanders inspired across the country in 2016 would suggest that Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez’s victories are not simply some glitch in the system.
Pundits and party operatives will already be analyzing these election results with an eye on the 2020 presidential election campaign. But will they learn any lessons? Trump led a Republican revolt in 2016. If Democrats want to have any chance of doing the same and winning in 2020, they had better realize they won’t do it by offering a limp and cowardly candidate who runs a Clinton-style campaign.
If recent history is any indicator, however, the Democratic establishment will do its best to steamroll progressives and run as far to the right as possible without having to actually change the letter beside their names. Instead of opting for candidates who energize people on a human level, they keep throwing their weight behind the ones who are best at raising money from corporate donors, not exactly inspiring confidence in progressives. They would also do well to remember that a strategy of calling Trump a racist and misogynist while bleating non-stop about Russia doesn’t win elections; ideas and policies do.
The media, for its part, does a great job of helping corporate-funded Democrats with this by indulging them with disproportionate coverage of various Russia-related conspiracy theories, while constantly framing progressive newcomers as illegitimate and chastising them for ‘dividing’ the party or pushing policies that are too ‘radical’ for voters.
Big voices in the progressive movement, such as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have already pushed some potential 2020 candidates to the left on various issues. The pressure is starting to work because the policies —like Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college and criminal justice reform — are actually popular among Americans.
Progressives may not have won across the board on Tuesday, but momentum is building and these things don’t always happen overnight. Democrats managed to take back the House last night, but they might have done so despite the party strategy, not because of it.
*Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer based in Dublin. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Nation, Rethinking Russia, teleSUR, RBTH, The Calvert Journal and others. Follow her on Twitter @DanielleRyanJ