The One Thing the Democratic Party Doesn't Need

(Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Virginia Democratic candidates Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam join hands with former President Barack Obama in Richmond, Virginia, on October 19, 2017.

This Tuesday is Election Day, and two things are likely to happen: Democrats will win most of the key races taking place here and there around the country, and the results will be taken as evidence that their party is lost at sea, unable to figure out who it is or what it stands for.

I say that because "Dems in Disarray!" may be the single most irresistible headline to the political news media, whether or not it's true at a particular moment. The two biggest races taking place Tuesday are the gubernatorial contests in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy is all but certain to win, and Virginia, where Democrat Ralph Northam's lead over Ed Gillespie has shrunk in recent days. But even if Northam wins, the size of the victory will be used to construct a narrative of Democratic weakness and confusion, with yet another round of soul-searching posited as the only solution to their problems.

Not that there isn't some evidence for the charge. Northam has run a milquetoasty campaign seemingly designed to count on voters sleepwalking to the polls, while Gillespie—a longtime Republican Party insider and corporate lobbyist—has gone full-out on fear and tribalism. His ads tell voters that his opponent is a friend to pedophiles and MS-13 gang members who are coming to kill you and rape your daughters, which they'll be free to do once Northam tears down the Confederate statues we all hold so dear in our hearts. It's an uncommonly cynical and morally repugnant campaign, even from a hack like Gillespie.

Should Gillespie pull out a surprise victory, Northam's anemic campaign will certainly hold some lessons for Democrats. But it isn't that they need to hold a bunch of focus groups to figure out what they should stand for.

Because the truth is that Democrats know very well what they stand for. Name an issue and they have a position on it—in fact, they've probably got a position paper, or two or three or ten, that will go into far more detail than you asked for. Disagreements between Democrats, whether on economics or climate change or health care or abortion, tend to be pretty slight, especially considering how diverse a coalition their party is. You can take issue with those positions from the right or the left, but you can't pretend the party doesn't have them.

What they don't have is a simple summation of their beliefs like Republicans have (small government, low taxes, strong defense, traditional values). But that's a matter of marketing, and it should be understood as the shallow (if consequential) concern that it is. It has little to do with who they are or what they believe—it's essentially about getting better bumper stickers. Good bumper stickers are something a party needs, but one shouldn't pretend that what's missing is much more profound than that. Yes, they have organizational problems, fundraising problems, and plenty of other challenges you could name, but those are practical challenges that don't require a searing look into their very soul, of the kind so many people constantly want them to undertake.

(A side note: If you're waiting for me to weigh in with a Hot Take on Donna Brazile's book and the charges that the DNC "rigged" the 2016 primary election for Hillary Clinton, too bad. Because I don't care. There are about 14 billion things more important to talk about right now than rehashing the Bernie-Hillary conflict.)

Let's contrast that with Republicans. When they lose an election, do they beat their breasts and say, "We don't know who we are! We need to spend more time talking to the voters who hate us the most! Why oh why do we suck so much?"

No, they don't. They continue to advocate for the same basic set of policies, and they worry much more about how to get their voters to the polls than they do about winning over voters who dislike them.

Right now, the GOP has more power than it has ever had—and it's stunningly unpopular. The party in general has approval ratings of around 30 percent. Paul Ryan's ratings are about the same. Mitch McConnell's are even worse. As for the party's leader, The Washington Post recently noted that President Trump "has an approval rating demonstrably lower than any previous chief executive at this point in his presidency over seven decades of polling."

And yet Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. How did they manage that? It isn't because their policies are popular, because they aren't. Democratic positions on issues tend to garner more support than Republican ones, which is one of the reasons Republicans are having such a tough time passing their agenda through Congress. They have all that power at the moment because of factors including timing, endless repetition of a few simple themes, and the fact that the instant they get power they set about rigging the system to make sure they keep it, with things like gerrymandering and brutal vote-suppression laws that make it harder to register and cast a ballot, particularly if you're African American.

And when their ratings fall or they suffer setbacks, they don't let it derail them. Look at what's happening in Washington right now. Republicans are highly likely to pass an enormous tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, a tax cut that is extremely unpopular and could well do them more damage at the polls than if they pass nothing at all. When Vox's Tara Golshan asked Republican members of Congress about the fact that corporate tax cuts are particularly unpopular, she got responses ranging from dismissal ("Who cares?" said one) to denial ("I don't believe that poll. I don't believe it," said another).

The Republican Party may be riven by internal conflict, but underneath it all they still push forward, whatever the consequences. If they lose the next election or two, so be it; they know that they can always count on backlash politics to give them a chance next time around.

So Democrats need to spend less time agonizing about who they are and more time figuring out how to get their voters to the polls in every election—and not just in presidential years. That's a surer path back to power than anything else they can do.

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