US Midterms: Democrats have work to do before 2020

With midterms over, the 2020 campaign begins. Will the Democrats offer policies and leadership that signal a real alternative? Stephen Blank gives a to-do list for the party.   

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November 8, 2018
A day after the midterm elections, the dome of the US Capitol is seen through autumn leaves in Washington, DC, November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

After initial elation, many Democrats are now disappointed at the results of the midterm elections. Perhaps in the lead-up they suffered from excessive optimism? Republicans increased their majority in the Senate, flipping several weakly-held Democratic seats, doing even better than most polls forecast. Republicans won several marquee contests — in Texas, Florida and Georgia — though narrowly (both Florida and Georgia could see recounts). And while the Democrats have retaken the House, the “blue wave” was scarcely as powerful as they had believed — hoped — it would be. The 2018 midterms were certainly not a backlash against Donald Trump. 

A more nuanced view might suggest that the Republican Party scored on big plays where they had a distinct advantage, but the Democrats won the ground game, extending their majorities out from their major urban centres into adjoining, traditionally Republican suburban districts. Whether the Democrats can hold these new constituencies and whether their new highly diverse team — with many more young people, women and people of colour — will be an advantage or a disadvantage remains to be seen.

The most significant change following the midterms is that the Democrats have won control of the House. So, what now? 

Checks and balances have returned to Washington, and the now-Democratic-led House has a wide array of powers. It will surely exercise more vigilant oversight than has been the case in the past two years. It can slow down the processes of government, possibly gridlock key developments. Its committees can initiate investigations and issue subpoenas and try to torment the Trump White House. But the president, supported now by a much more Trumpist Senate (the few remaining GOP moderates in the Senate are powerless), owns the bully pulpit and has many big guns. Past presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, faced with Congressional opposition, expanded the use of executive action and Trump has done the same.

The midterms were widely seen to be a referendum on the president. Dislike of Trump, his rhetoric and his policies dominated Democratic campaigns, and Trump was delighted to meet that challenge, often overshadowing GOP candidates he was ostensibly supporting. With some justice — the better-than-expected Senate outcome — Trump can claim a victory. Given the divided government, it’s possible that he will adopt a more bipartisan style in the next two years, but many feel a full-Trump play is more likely.

Looking to 2020

The Democrats’ key objective must be to prepare to win the 2020 election — to elect a Democratic president, to turn the Senate and to maintain control of the House. To build for the future, it is equally urgent that they continue the process begun Tuesday of recovering control of State Houses and governorships that were squandered during the Obama years. 

To do this, they need to unite on a clear, widely and enthusiastically acceptable Democratic program and draft a leadership team for 2020. They must decide how much political capital should be invested launching investigations of Cabinet members and into Trump’s family businesses and demanding his tax returns. How much would down-in-the-dirt struggles with Trump rally Democrats or Trump supporters? How much would it support or inhibit the key task of building an alternative to the policy map Trump has created over the past two years? 

One problem is that what the Democrats want is hardly clear. On critical national issues, Trump’s policy ideas are vivid and often wildly popular among his base, but Democrats have been running on a mash-up of policy ideas all over the political map. There is neither clarity or consensus. Democrats have not laid out specific policies they will advocate on the key issues of the day — on trade, relations with Russia, the Middle East, health care, infrastructure, affirmative action, inequality, immigration, and on and on.

They have lots of goals. The party’s 2016 program ran to some 45 pages, listing dozens of goals: “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” “Protect Voting Rights,” “Combat Climate Change,” “Ending Violence Against Women,” “Non-proliferation of Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Weapons” and on and on. This is a great list, but it offers no sense of priorities or, more important, of specific policies that would achieve these goals, or of the budgetary implications of all of this. Democrats announced the “A Better Deal” campaign in the summer of 2017, focusing on “Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future” for Americans — a sort of Bernie Sanders-lite statement. Last spring, they swivelled to a focus on corruption around three pillars: voting rights and access, campaign finance, and pay-to-play politics. Again, all good stuff. But where are the specifics — specifics that will unite the party?

Trump takes a lot of space on the policy spectrum. His “American First” stance is deeply offensive to many, but no one is going to stand up for “America Second.” How will the Democrats carve out a more nuanced view that doesn’t look weak or wonky? On trade, for example, we have no idea of where the Democrats will stand. Will they suddenly support trade agreements they have long opposed, such as NAFTA (now USMCA)? Will they support the bilateral agreements the president is negotiating? Will they back off of the administration’s tough line on China trade? Democrats may disagree with the president’s single-minded embrace of tariffs. But how close to free (freer? fair?) trade will they go? Surely, they won’t potty mouth the WTO, IMF or UN. But they will hardly be advocates for globalization and will certainly come up with their own list for improving these agencies.

A united alternative?

Democrats are deeply divided on many of these issues. How will the party’s progressive and moderate groups in the House come together on a clear, widely supported program for 2020? Polls suggest that health care is a winner for Democrats — but what should be done? “Medicare for all” arouses some, but others worry about costs and about dragging health care into another monster fight. Repairing Obamacare seems a wiser road for others, but this would be resisted among the party’s more radicalized progressive wing. On election strategy, will the party focus on minority urban voters or strive to recover more rural white votes lost to Trump? How can it deepen its hold on suburban communities so critical to its success this week? Did the 2018 midterms build a new and stronger Democratic coalition or has it embraced such wide diversity that it is fatally weakened? 

And they must work quickly. The 2020 campaign began Wednesday. By the beginning of 2020, Democrats must enunciate a vision that excites a wide range of communities — those who despise Trump and scorn his supporters, those who voted for Trump but are disillusioned with him, progressives and moderates, constituencies with lists of specific interests, and those who rarely vote. And they must have selected a new leadership team.

The greatest danger is that Democrats will fall on each other’s throats on leadership, and wander helplessly around the range on policy issues; that they will look like jerks, not leaders; that they won’t offer a credible alternative to the president; and that they will fail to carry out their absolutely necessary objective: to build a coherent, widely acceptable foundation for success in the 2020 election. 

The danger is that the mess the Democrats could make in the next two years deepens intra-party cleavages, demoralizes voters who swung back to the party in 2018 and revives the GOP core. The Democrats could be left wracked and ravished, and the blue gains in 2018 could wash back out in 2020.