NEW YORK - Democrats are already counting their electoral chickens for the midterms — but their unwillingness to lay out a clear agenda may be about to hand the party their second devastating defeat in two years.
Everyone is playing the Special Election Game. Tea-leaf readers are obsessed. Does last November’s Democratic win in the Virginia governor’s race presage a Blue Wave or was it simply a reflection of ongoing red-to-purple demographics? Should we be surprised that Alabama sent a Democrat (albeit a conservative one) to the Senate — or that he nearly lost to an alleged pedophile? What about the latest contest in Pennsylvania — would a Democratic upset in a GOP congressional district spell the beginning of the end for Donald Trump? Or nothing much at all?
Every midterm election is characterized as a referendum on the incumbent president. But the polarization vortex that is this unique president has raised the stakes far beyond the usual handicapping parlor game.
The rising suspicion that special counsel Robert Mueller may not be able to build enough of a Russia collusion and/or corruption case to bring down the president himself, only some of his associates, has Democrats terrified and appalled. For those who believe that Trump represents an existential threat to democracy and its replacement by a permanent new American authoritarianism, the republic’s last, only, best hope before it does happen here is impeachment — but that would only be possible if and after Democrats have retaken control of Congress next year.
Only a few Democrats have implied — though not promised — that they might impeach the president if voters put them back in charge. For Trump-hating Democrats, everything hangs upon winning back Congress and hoping their newly elected officials do the right thing. Seventy percent of Democrats say they want the House of Representatives to hold impeachment hearings.
Democratic strategists are counting on a favorable enthusiasm gap this November, driven in large part by liberals who despise Trump. They pointed to another tea-leaf: Texas’s early primary voting, where Democratic turnout was double that of 2014. Republican turnout was lower. But then came election day. Never mind early voting; Republican voters flooded the polls when and where it mattered, on March 6 — by a three-to-two margin. Democrats lost.
Republicans remain fiercely loyal to Trump, with as many as 90 percent approving of the president’s job performance. The greater the likelihood of a Democratic sweep, the more GOP voters will back up Trump if for no other reason than to deny liberals the satisfaction of removing a Republican president.
The problem for those who’d like to see Trump legislatively hobbled after 2018 is that Democrats are divided into two camps. There are establishment “Hillary voters” who reliably support any Democratic nominee, and rebellious pro-Bernie Sanders left populists who only show up to vote when the Democratic candidate is credibly progressive. Anti-Trumpism is widespread and evokes passionate responses among Democrats yet its motivational power is effectively canceled out by the party’s disunity. As a result, “There does not seem to be an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans,” Musa al-Gharbi noted in The New York Times. The solution for Democrats seems evident: increase the enthusiasm gap by shoring up their left populist base.
First, Democrats should nationalize the midterm elections the way Newt Gingrich did with his “Contract for America” in 1994.
Conservatives vote Republican because they think Democrats favor redistributionist policies like a more progressive tax system, a single-payer health care system and a robust minimum wage. Progressives don’t show up at general elections because Democratic politicians don’t actually push for those things.
There’s much to gain and little to lose by laying out an unapologetically liberal series of campaign promises focused on addressing the problems of the poor and middle class, as well as such scandalously neglected crises as the opioid epidemic, excessive military spending and out-of-control college tuition costs.
Democrats could also steal some of Trump’s nationalist thunder by promising to prioritize labor and the environment in international trade agreements.
Party leaders are understandably reluctant to stamp a one-size-fits-all platform across an ideologically diverse series of contests, including many where conservative Democrats have to run in red districts. But they can’t avoid it. As they did in 2014 and 2010, Republicans will nationalize the midterms by framing their opponents as lapdogs of a radical “San Francisco liberal” — House minority leader Nancy Pelosi — and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, a slick New Yorker. Democrats had might as well own it.
Similarly, Republicans will say that Democrats are coming to take away their guns, their freedoms and their president — so they must defend him. Who cares if Pelosi says impeachment is “not someplace that I think we should go” if Democrats take back the majority? No one who listens to Rush Limbaugh will ever hear her.
Since they won’t lose any swing voters by doing so, but they would generate enthusiasm among their currently weak progressive left flank, Democrats might as well own impeachment too.
Everyone already knows that November is all about impeaching Trump. If the Democrats really want to win, the first promise in their national platform for the 2018 midterms ought to be a clear, unequivocal pledge to get rid of the president.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist and writer.