Sifting Through the Advice Everyone is Giving Democrats

I suppose it’s inevitable. As the 2018 midterms loom closer on the horizon, anyone worth their salt is diving into the water to offer their take on what Democrats need to do to turn things around for their party. Similarly there is no shortage of folks wringing their hands under the assumption that the party is blowing it. While hardly an exhaustive list, here are a few items I’ve seen recently that take up one or both of those causes:

How Democrats Could Squander Their Advantage by Josh Kraushaar

Democrats Unified on Trump but Torn on Election Agenda by Sahil Kapur

A Party in the Wilderness by Jon Favreau

New coalition aims to improve Democratic messaging against Trump by James Hohmann

Can Democrats Win in the South? by Byron Hurlbut

Hope From the Heartland by Congresswoman Cheri Bustos and Robin Johnson

There are three assumptions that underly a lot of this analysis:

  1. Democrats need a national message/agenda
  2. Democrats need to chose whether a progressive economic message or “identity politics” would be a more successful electoral strategy
  3. A so-called “culture war” benefits Republicans

The Hohmann article above reports on the latest attempt to craft a national message for Democrats.

Many Democratic talking heads make weak arguments on television that fail to move voters. To address this, several groups and top pollsters on the left are teaming up to launch a new project that will conduct surveys and convene focus groups to produce monthly guidance with the most politically potent lines of attack against President Trump and congressional Republicans.

This new initiative, which has not been previously reported, will be called Navigator Research. The debut report, shared first with The Daily 202, offers original polling and talking points related to the economy, political corruption and disruption.

While some Democratic candidates might find that kind of thing useful, the idea that the same messages would benefit both Sen. Elizabeth Warren who is running for reelection in Massachusetts and Sen. Joe Manchin running in West Virginia is ludicrous. From the article by Kapur, Sean McElwee offers this advice for candidates in Warren’s position:

…Democrats in safe blue states and districts should run on [more progressive ideas] to shift the window of acceptable conversation leftward and “create more space for progressive discourse.”

Candidates running in traditionally red states and districts aren’t in a position to “shift the window of acceptable conversation leftward” and probably need to offer more pragmatic messages. But Hurbut offers the most important advice.

Democrats can run on a number of platforms, ranging from moderate to liberal, but [Brad] Komar made one point abundantly clear: “credibility of a message is almost as important as the message itself.”

In other words, being authentic trumps everything else.

The idea that Democrats have to chose between a progressive economic message and so-called “identity politics” has been hashed to death since the 2016 election. In that context we rarely here about the kind of research that was recently reported by Ian Haney López, Anat Shenker-Osorio and Tamara Draut. They suggest that the most effective message for combating Republicans is a combination of both. For example:

Whether white, black, or brown, 5th generation or newcomer, we all want to build a better future for our children. My opponent says some families have value, while others don’t count. He wants to pit us against each other in order to gain power for himself and kickbacks for his donors.

Finally, on whether or not the so-called “cultural issues” will be a winner for Republicans, Kraushaar makes the argument.

Take the issue of guns, where the broader politics have been moving in the Democrats’ direction since the Parkland school shooting. Forty-five percent of Republicans in the ABC/Post poll said supporting a candidate who agrees with them on gun policy is “extremely important,” a slightly higher share than the 43 percent of Democrats who are equally emboldened on the issue. Despite all the sympathetic coverage to the gun-control cause, Republicans are now more fired up on the subject. The student activists’ strident attack against the National Rifle Association risks raising the ire of the opposition as much as it excites their already engaged supporters.

Let’s be clear, anyone who thinks that Republicans won’t try to exploit these cultural issues in the coming midterms hasn’t been paying attention to things like what happened with Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race. Since the GOP tax cuts aren’t giving them any juice, that is all they have. But so far, in the elections that have been held in 2017 and 2018, they aren’t working.

Along those lines, I have one piece of advice for those who find themselves on the receiving end of those messages. As I suggested when I wrote previously about the Bustos report, Republicans have to rely on distortions of the Democratic position on those issues. To use Kraushaar’s example about guns, they tell voters that Democrats want to take their guns away, when the Parkland student activists have suggested no such thing. They are advocating for common sense gun safety measures like universal background checks and a ban on weapons like the AR-15, which have overwhelming support among voters.

If a Democrat running in a conservative district hears those kinds of arguments, laying out their actual policy positions is important, but probably not sufficient. In addition, they should ask some questions that take a more offensive approach, like:

  • Do you agree with Republicans that people on the terrorist watch list should be able to go to a gun show and purchase an assault weapon?
  • Do you agree with Republicans that we should defund Planned Parenthood?
  • Do you agree with Republicans that a young person who was brought to this country as a child and knows no other home should be deported?

The truth is that anyone who answers “yes” to those questions is probably not persuadable. But getting people to think about how extremist Republicans are on these issues might be exactly what is necessary and, unlike the opposition, they happen to be accurate statements.

When I ran a non-profit, one of the things I learned about hiring staff is that my best bet was to hire competent talented people who shared our overall vision. From there, it was important to provide them with guidance and support, but mostly to allow them to do their own thing rather than attempt to provide them with a script to follow in any given situation. More often than not, they exceeded my expectations. That is exactly what Democrats should do going into the 2018 midterms: recruit great candidates who share their vision, provide them with support and let them do their thing.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.