It’s good to have something to say. There was Tuesday, July 27, 2004 – the place was Boston – Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to all the partisans who wanted to toss out George Bush, who had already become a disaster. Far worse was to come, but so far, enough was enough. What the hell were we doing in Iraq? There never were any weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein hadn’t been behind 9/11 or anything else. And what was with all the tax cuts for the rich? Ordinary people were in trouble. Economic conservatism – supply-side economics that gave all the breaks to corporations and their owners (the suppliers) and not the workers (as if creating demand didn’t matter) – was a scam. Preemptive wars weren’t going to transform the Middle East either – there would only be more wars – and social conservatism was cruel – racism in disguise. And the people in red states were idiots. It was time to go to war with them – perhaps for truth, justice and the American way. They hate us, we hate them, and that wasn’t going to change – not now – maybe not ever. The nation had been split in two, into two tribes, as many said. There was no going back. Choose your side. Stand with your tribe.
Obama could have riffed on that, but he had something to say to both sides:
Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
Everyone knew that they were looking at the next President of the United States – assuming John Kerry lost, which he did, and assuming that George Bush would be even more of a disaster than he had already been. He was. It was Obama’s turn. He had something to say and Hillary Clinton didn’t stand a chance. She was a tribal Democrat, or at least an establishment Democrat. Obama was post-tribal. John McCain didn’t stand a chance either. His tribe had blown it. Obama was beyond all that. None of them had anything to say that hadn’t been said before. Obama did.
That always wins elections. That may be why Donald Trump is president. He had a lot to say, most of it nasty – no more Muslims and Mexicans and gays and whatnot. Hillary Clinton had vast experience and positions and position papers that acknowledged complexity and ambiguity and called for carefulness and no sudden moves that could get us all killed. She knew her stuff but there was no clear, single message in any of that. Voters seemed to assume she had nothing to say, really, and that the Democrats had nothing to say either. Donald Trump had something to say. It was often absurd, but it was something. Something beats nothing every time.
It was over for the Democrats. After Obama, they had nothing to say. Bernie Sanders had plenty to say, and still does, but he’s not even a Democrat – he’s an Independent who calls himself a Social Democrat, in the European sense, who caucuses with the Democrats. He publicly steps back from that party that has nothing to say, because he does. He would have helped them, but they wouldn’t give him the nomination – their loss. And they will lose, again and again, and now they’ve lost again:
Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, retaining a seat that has been in GOP hands since 1979 after a grueling, four-month campaign that earned the distinction of being the most expensive House race in history.
Handel’s win will bring fresh attention to a beleaguered Democratic Party that has suffered a string of defeats in special elections this year despite an angry and engaged base of voters who dislike Trump.
It may also embolden Republicans in Washington to press ahead on an ambitious policy agenda that has yielded few legislative victories since Trump’s inauguration in January. Most immediately, the election result could bring momentum to Senate Republicans’ efforts this week to craft their version of a major revision to the Affordable Care Act.
“We need to finish the drill on health care,” Handel said during her victory speech here Tuesday. Chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” erupted before her.
Trump is the man of the hour. He always has something to say, but Karen Handel also knew that Trump is a fool:
Handel’s victory, however, revealed as much about Trump’s lingering problems among Republicans as it did the challenges facing Democrats. In a ruby-red district that her Republican predecessor won in November by 23 points, Handel struggled with Trump’s looming presence over the race. She won not with an embrace of the president but by barely mentioning his name…
Handel, who will be the first woman elected to Congress from Georgia, repeatedly ducked opportunities to echo Trump’s populist roar and instead presented a classic Republican case to voters, all while deflecting the barrage of questions about Trump’s latest tweets or his handling of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
She decided to say not much of anything about anything – at least nothing new – but she was better than that other guy:
Ossoff, 30, a former congressional staffer, raised more than $23 million, built a devoted grass-roots following and courted Republicans by bemoaning “wasteful” spending.
In another Tuesday tweet, Trump took a swipe at Ossoff’s centrist positioning and dismissed him as a liberal who “wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in district.” Ossoff lives just outside the district with his fiancée.
As Handel’s lead climbed late Tuesday, a senior White House official sent The Washington Post a text message: “They haven’t figured out how to beat Trump.”
They haven’t figured out how to beat Trump? She never mentioned him, but that didn’t matter:
For Democrats, Ossoff’s loss was demoralizing, coming after months of bitter infighting in the wake of Trump’s victory.
His defeat is also likely to lead to more criticism from the wing of liberal activists who want a more confrontational style embodied by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). They have already complained about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s willingness to support a more moderate candidate in Ossoff, while more progressive candidates in special elections in Montana and Kansas this year were left largely in the lurch.
It seems that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t want their candidates saying things, but the other side also wanted to talk about other things:
Ossoff’s loss raises real concerns about the continued potency of Republican attacks against Democrats by tying them to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The anti-Ossoff campaign seemed to veer from issue to issue given the week, but the one constant thread over the last four months has been linking him to Pelosi.
According to one Republican involved in the effort, the Democratic leader had a name identification of 98 percent among voters in the Georgia district, and her disapproval ratings were 35 percentage points higher than her approval numbers.
So Karen Handel, who wouldn’t mention Trump if she could help it, was really running against Nancy Pelosi, and Donald Trump won – or something like that. Luckily, her opponent made a miscalculation:
The Ossoff approach was to toe the middle of the road politically. His calls for civility, at a time of a nontraditional brand of politics from Trump, served as an indirect contrast to the president – a polite rebuke while trying not to offend those who voted for him.
“There is a great hunger here in Georgia, across the political spectrum, for leadership that is focused on civility, that is humble, that’s committed to delivering results instead of notching partisan wins or winning the day on Twitter,” he said Monday in an interview.
No, something (mean) beats nothing (much) every time.
Paul Kane explains that with a brief example:
Jeff Jacobson epitomizes the liberal conundrum: Deep down he wanted to back a warrior, but he found himself working for a high priest preaching civil resistance.
The 65-year-old recent retiree from the local Treasury Department office had not been much of a political volunteer, but this year was different. “It was Trump initially,” Jacobson, 65, said outside the field office for Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Yet Jacobson found himself volunteering for someone who studiously avoided confronting President Trump, trying to win over enough Republican voters in the suburbs north of Atlanta to flip a district that had been in GOP hands for decades.
Kane generalizes from that:
The most passionate Democratic activists have wanted a full-frontal assault on Trump and congressional Republicans, angrily denouncing party leaders for not aggressively supporting more progressive candidates.
Indeed, more than 200 miles to the north, a dramatically underfunded Democrat, Archie Parnell, nearly pulled off an upset victory in a House seat that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee largely ignored. In Ossoff, Democrats hoped they had found a potential new path to defeating Republicans with a message of peace and civility. They calculated that the fiery rage, often associated with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would not win over moderate Republicans and centrists, whose support Ossoff needed to have any chance to win a district that Tom Price, the six-term congressman who is Trump’s health secretary, won by more than 20 percentage points in November.
So Ossoff chose the high-priest route instead of the fierce warrior. It was civil disobedience rather than civil unrest. And he still lost, by an even wider margin than the almost forgotten Parnell.
But maybe it wasn’t a total loss:
Democrats were declaring that just by making the Georgia race so competitive, they set a marker for how tough the 2018 midterms will be for Republicans. Many observers noted that this district is one of 35 that either voted for Hillary Clinton or that Trump won by less than four percentage points, making it a key focal point for next year’s bid to win the 24 seats needed for Democrats to take the majority.
Democrats noted that by other measures, nearly 70 more Republican-held seats will be more friendly than Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the midterm elections.
This was Georgia. That was the problem:
Privately, Democratic strategists said even before the votes were counted Tuesday that Ossoff’s civility campaign would be mirrored only in more Republican-leaning districts, and that a more aggressive anti-Trump campaign would be waged by candidates in longtime swing districts.
That might be wise, and Jennifer Rubin says that Democrats did well enough here:
The rational response is that this race does not indicate either that the Republicans are cooked in 2018 or that they can breathe a sigh of relief and continue to cling to Trump. The district, we need to remember, went to Tom Price by 23 percentage points in 2016, and to Trump by only 1.5 points. If a district rated as safely Republican in past years is now a virtual tossup, that’s one sign that Republicans under Trump have an uphill climb to reach highly educated, suburban voters. And, as the New York Times’ Alex Burns put it, “The Sixth is still a really Republican district, and the element of surprise was an asset Ossoff had in the first round but not the vote tonight.” If Democrats can be faulted, it was in unduly raising expectations in a district that is rated as 9.5 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole.
But that still leaves the Democrats in disarray:
Democrats will continue to debate whether they should focus more on health care or on Trump’s scandals and whether to veer far left or hew to the center-left. Advocates of the health-care-heavy approach would say the results would have been different had Ossoff concentrated even more intensely on the GOP’s plans to roll back the Affordable Care Act. In reality, the Democrats did exceptionally well in a district no one would have expected them to win six months ago with an atmosphere in which both health care and Trump’s Russia scandal were front and center. Unfortunately for Democrats, the race will not resolve the internal debate as to where the party should put its emphasis. Moreover, by the time 2018 rolls around, Trumpcare will either be a reality or have crashed and burned.
But there is this:
We should remember that the single biggest determinant of midterm results is the favorability of the sitting president. Right now, that should keep Republicans up at night.
Democrats can take solace in seeing their candidates vastly over-perform in what should be easy seats for Republicans.
Josh Marshall almost agrees with that:
There’s no question and there should be no denying that this is a very disappointing loss. It is a very Republican district. It was vacated by HHS Secretary Tom Price who has been a key architect of Trumpcare, which is now readying to scythe its way through the tens of millions of Americans who gained coverage from Obamacare. It was even the seat once held by Newt Gingrich. Taking it from the GOP would have been a big victory both substantively and symbolically. It would also have sent a clear signal that the GOP’s House majority is living on borrowed time…
The district is relatively diverse for a GOP district and educated and affluent. In other words, it’s made up of just the kind of Republicans who proved most resistant to Trump. The question has been whether that Trump unpopularity would apply to a conventional Republican who, by normal standards, is well suited to the district. The answer from tonight seems to be, yes. Ossoff dramatically over-performed and almost won the seat.
Almost isn’t a marginal win of course. You have to win to win.
And that worries him:
What Democrats need to resist at all costs is the temperamental inclination to fall into spasms of self-loathing over this defeat – specifically, the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the party because of this loss. I saw one Democrat on Twitter tonight ask if Ossoff’s loss didn’t mean “the Democratic party apparatus needs a total overhaul on every single level?”
Maybe the Democrats do need a fundamental overhaul – but doing 10 to 15 points better than a House candidate has done in this district since the 1970s simply isn’t evidence for that.
Marshall does worry about Democrats:
There’s also a toxic desire on the part of many to use this painful defeat as an opening to re-litigate intra-party grievances. Losing is hard. Taking a loss and getting up the next day to keep fighting to get to the next level takes endurance and guts. Many cannot resist the temptation to trade that sting for a toxic self-validation. All I can say to that is that parties build majorities by finding ways to unite competing factions over common interests and goals – something Donald Trump should help with a lot. They almost never get there when they are locked in internecine struggle or when either faction thinks it can or does destroy the other. That’s just not how it works…
This is a big disappointment. But remember, by any objective measure these races show a Democratic Party resurgent and a GOP on the ropes. These seats came open because they were vacated by people Trump picked for cabinet appointments. They got those picks because they came from safe seats. They are by no means a cross-section of House seats. The thing to do is learn what we can from coming up just short and move on to the next fight.
Fine, but you still have to have something to say, and Matthew Yglesias addresses that:
Karen Handel didn’t argue that the Republican Party’s health care bill is a good idea (it’s very unpopular) or that tax cuts for millionaires should be the country’s top economic priority (another policy that polls dismally). Instead, her campaign and its allies buried Ossoff under a pile of what basically amounts to nonsense – stuff about Kathy Griffin, stuff about Samuel L. Jackson, stuff about his home being just over the district line, stuff about him having raised money from out of state – lumped together under the broad heading that he’s an “outsider.”
Much of this was unfair or ridiculous. And the stuff that wasn’t unfair – like the location of his home – is honestly pretty silly. None of this has anything to do with the lives of actual people living in the suburbs of Atlanta or anywhere else.
But there was no response to that:
Ossoff’s team was aware, of course, that the district is not accustomed to voting for Democrats and that he was vulnerable to this kind of attack. They attempted to counter this move by positioning Ossoff as blandly as possible – just a kind of nice guy who doesn’t like Donald Trump – and dissociating him from any hard-edged ideas or themes. It’s a strategy that makes a certain amount of sense, but it also makes it hard to mobilize potential supporters. And by lowering the concrete stakes in the election, it also makes it easier for trivial and pseudo-issues to end up dominating in the end.
Yes, have something to say, but Democrats have been here before:
An important subtext of both the special election in Georgia and the earlier House special election in Montana was a continuation of the primary season argument between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, Sanders’s camp tended to argue that tactically, Democrats needed to do more to “win back” white working-class voters who’d defected from the party. Naturally, they felt the way to accomplish that was by adopting new more left-wing stances on economic issues. Clinton’s camp tended to argue that tactically, Democrats needed to continue the strategy of targeting the kinds of places where Trump underperformed – districts with large minority populations and/or highly educated white populations. Naturally, they felt the way to accomplish that was by adopting a Clinton-esque message focused on pragmatism and downplaying ideology.
In short, be bland and nonthreatening, but maybe not:
If your opponents are unpopular enough, it’s certainly possible to win elections this way. But especially for the party that has a more difficult time inspiring its supporters to turn out to vote, that’s an ominous sign. Right now on health care and many other issues, Democrats suffer from a cacophony of white papers and a paucity of unity around any kind of vision or story they want to paint of what is wrong with America today and what is the better country they want to build for the future. And until they do, they’re going to struggle to mobilize supporters in the way they need to win tough races.
That means they’ll keep losing, again and again. Donald Trump had something to say. It was often absurd, but it was something. Something beats nothing every time. But then, Barack Obama also had something to say, and it wasn’t absurd. He won the presidency twice, easily. The nebbish lost in Georgia. That’s the lesson here. Stand for something, and say so – or go home.