Winning Is Everything But Still Not Enough

One of the things I particularly like about the cover story in our July/August 2018 issue is that it articulates something that has been at the core of my political outlook since the first term of the George W. Bush administration. The title of the piece (Winning Is Not Enough) corresponds exactly with my view, although on first blush it could be interpreted as a direct rebuttal.

If I could summarize this briefly, I’d say that ever since I saw the Bush administration’s response to 9/11, the way the Republicans governed, their dismissal of factual information and scientific evidence, and their embrace of their most vicious aspects of our nature, I changed my mind about what the primary goal of Democratic politics should be in our era. All efforts should be directed to keeping the Republican Party, as presently constituted, out of power. In this sense, winning is everything. Simply by being in the majority, the Democrats are doing the country and the world the biggest service they could ever provide them, and whatever they do or don’t do with that power is relatively unimportant.

That was not an easy conclusion for me to reach and it isn’t always an easy one to maintain. By disposition, I am a fairly far-left progressive who would like to see the party become more economically populist and less conflicted and apologetic about its views on a host of social issues and public policies. There are many aspects of the Washington consensus that I find misguided, repugnant or even immoral, and I don’t want to be complacent about faults I see within the Democratic Party.

But all of that has been put on a back burner for me when it comes to priorities because keeping people like Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan from running our lives is more important than any other issue.

In saying that Winning Is Not Enough, the argument is not that I am wrong about the importance of winning. The argument is that the Democrats have a pattern of losing their majorities at the first opportunity after they gain them. This happened in the 1994 midterms and again in the 2010 midterms. Our editor-in-chief Paul Glastris is saying that the Democrats must shoot for the trifecta (control of the White House, Senate, and House) after the 2020 elections, but they cannot be content to pass a bunch of legislation and then be cast back out into the wilderness as they were they last two times they amassed that much power. A fuller headline would read: Winning in 2020 is Not Enough, the Democrats Must Win in Perpetuity.

Here’s how he articulates that, and I couldn’t put it better:

There was a time when divided government didn’t have to mean bad government. That time has passed. If the Obama years showed anything, it is that, when in opposition, the modern Republican Party has no goal beyond blocking the Democratic agenda, whatever that may be, and will transgress hitherto undisputed democratic norms to do so. Operationally, the GOP’s governing objectives have devolved to two base goals: transferring wealth upward, and staying in power. Because the former goal is unpopular, achieving the latter increasingly requires the party to rely on anti-democratic means: voter ID laws and voter roll purges designed to suppress minority and youth turnout; hyper-partisan gerrymandering; filling the federal judiciary with ideological conservatives committed to weakening the power of unions and enhancing that of corporations; and so on. (That’s all on top of constitutional features, like the Electoral College and the Senate, that give the GOP representation that is out of proportion to its votes.)

The election of Donald Trump has pushed the Republican Party even further in this direction, to the point where it is now openly enabling corruption and autocracy. Republican leaders have tried to stymie the Russia investigation. They have supported Trump’s effort to get the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies. They have refused to investigate his brazen violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution (from, among other things, foreign governments spending lavishly at Trump hotels). They have barely raised a word of protest, much less taken meaningful action, when Trump undermines relationships with America’s democratic allies, does favors for authoritarian adversaries, and says nice things about white nationalists here and abroad. Republican lawmakers uncomfortable with their party’s drift are being forced either to fall in line or leave office, because base GOP voters, fed by right-wing media, demand nothing less. Under such circumstances, no good—and a lot of harm—can come from Democrats losing Congress in 2022 and sharing power with the Republicans.

The fact that America now has only one party committed to small-d democracy changes everything. It’s no longer acceptable for Democrats to look at politics as a way to win the next election so as to jam through a bunch of their preferred policies before the Republicans inevitably take back power. They must instead see the purpose of politics as building sustained power for Democrats, period—but, unlike the other side, they must do this in part by strengthening the democratic process, not by undermining it. If passing this or that liberal policy helps in that effort, fine, pass it. If not, don’t. The overriding aim has to be getting and holding power—not for its own sake, but to keep the flame of democratic self-government alive unless and until the Republican Party abandons its authoritarian ways or is replaced by a new, small-d democratic party. Indeed, such a transition, which many committed conservatives and lifelong Republicans are now desperate to see happen, is only likely to come about if the Republican Party is locked out of power for several cycles in a row.

What Paul has done with this article is lay out a broad and multifaceted agenda that the Democrats might pursue if they get the trifecta again after the 2020 elections that has the potential to give them robust and sustainable majorities like the ones they enjoyed in the 1930s and 1940s. This agenda involves economic policy, legislative strategy (including the aggressive use of hearings), communications strategies, electoral reform and aggressive efforts to shore up voting rights, and major efforts to give people justifiable reasons to have trust in government again. Each of these proposals merits its own blog post, so I’ll just leave off here by suggesting you read the piece.

In the end, I don’t think it’s really true that the best way to keep Republicans out of power is to act a little bit like them or pander to the pathologies that fuel their political success. I think Paul makes it clear that the Democrats don’t really face a choice between cynicism and idealism or centrism and progressivism or rural versus suburban or establishment versus counter-establishment. The way forward can bridge many of these seeming gaps and accomplish the most critical task of our era (saving our democracy) with a very aggressive form of politics. But it’s going to take the kind of visionary leadership that Paul is providing here.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.