The Democrats may be making a serious mistake.
In planning for the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, they could be counting on President Trump’s unpopularity to allow the elections to fall into their laps. Good showings in special House elections, like this week in Georgia, might encourage this way of thinking.
Many Democrats and probably Hillary Clinton herself thought that voters’ dislike of Trump would be sufficient to hand them victory in 2016.
They suffered from a dangerous kind of political myopia. They thought everybody or at least a majority shared their view of Trump’s values and behavior. A majority of voters did, but they were concentrated in only 20 states, not enough for an electoral vote victory. Have they learned their lesson?
Democrats see Trump as incompetent, with major conflicts of interest, lacking knowledge of government, and beholden to the extreme right. After making extravagant promises on health care, he had no proposal, and the GOP proposal flopped. In foreign policy, he flirts with danger and is highly inconsistent.
His supporters have not melted away because of such concerns, which many do not share. They see him as different from traditional politicians, trying to keep his promises and getting tough with the world. His exaggerations and inaccuracies don’t bother them. Their continuing support is a sign that he won’t self-destruct.
For many, Washington is still “the swamp.” Trump is struggling against being sucked in. He is slowly learning that he cannot drain it simply by virtue of having won the election, but he hasn’t given up.
In their apparent belief that Trump is doomed to fail, congressional Democrats seem content to oppose the GOP and stick to their traditional policy proposals. But voters are now completely jaded by political promises that are not kept. As Bernie Sanders and Trump showed, voters want change.
Next year, the Democrats face a major challenge. They need to pick up 24 seats to control the House. Although the opposition party to the president traditionally gains seats in the next elections, that’s a long hill to climb.
Democrats hold 20 of the 33 Senate seats to be contested, meaning they would have keep all of them and pick up three of the GOP’s seats for a majority. That would take an almost unprecedented reversal of Democratic fortunes.
In February, the Democrats supposedly started out fresh. They struggled to decide if the Sanders or the Clinton wing would control and finally picked a new chairman. But there are still no signs of a positive, new message from the party, beyond opposing Trump.
Looking at the Democratic Party’s official website, it is about organizational matters and insider issues. There is nothing there for the independent voter or disgruntled Republicans. Next year, there may be nothing more than a decentralized array of candidate proposals.
The alternative to a policy of coasting and hoping would be to draft a clear statement of party policy and get it out to the public. Of course, organizing work needs to be done as well, but with the next elections about 19 months away, the Democrats need to be making their case now. And it needs to be more than anti-Trump.
New party chair Tom Perez should swiftly move to end any rifts between Sanders and Clinton supporters. This is a critical need for a party that, given its fallen status, cannot afford to be divided.
The Republicans found a form of self-discipline was a major factor in their transformation from a minority party to majority control. Their party discipline and the “Contract with America,” which could be written on one side of a piece of paper, were effective tools in communicating a simple message to voters.
Not only do the Democrats need to get on with writing a bold, new statement of their values and goals, but they need to be working hard at all levels to find ways to get more voters to the polls and to identify appealing new candidates.
Merely leaving these tasks to a decentralized and often lackluster effort by the states will not produce the kind of results necessary for a reversal in the course of American politics.
The challenge for the Democrats is to take a leaf from the GOP playbook and abandon business as usual. Depending on Trump alone to create more Democrats won’t work.
The country needs a vigorous two-party system to produce the kind of government based on compromise that people want. From a position of strength, the Democrats have a better chance of forcing such compromise than they have now.