Whatever Happened to ‘All Politics is Local?’

Articles like this one in the New York Times by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos are one of the main reasons why I decided to start writing about politics. Before that, I’d find myself screaming at my computer screen in frustration at the lack of insight and grounding in history. 

Here is the basic claim made by Stolberg and Fandos:

House Democrats, looking to wrest control of the chamber from Republicans in November, are discarding the lessons of successful midterms past and pressing only a bare-bones national agenda, leaving it to candidates to tailor their own messages to their districts.

It is a risky strategy, essentially putting off answering one of the most immediate questions facing the Democratic Party after its losses in 2016: What does it stand for?

By way of  context, here is how they describe the current situation for Democrats:

…with anti-Washington sentiment simmering; a deep divide between the party’s moderates and its left flank; and the brand of the party’s longtime leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, toxic in large sections of the country, they have concluded that a unified campaign framework emanating from Capitol Hill would do more harm than good.

What they’ve done is buy into the myth of “Democrats in disarray” and the fact that Republicans are going all-in on demonizing the closest thing to a national leader the party has right now, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. That is the basis for their conclusion that Democrats haven’t come together on a unified campaign framework. They go on to describe how that means that the party has abandoned lessons from successful midterms past.

For at least the past 20 years, whenever a party has won control of the House, it has done so with some kind of unifying message or pitch. In 1994, Republicans ran and won on their “Contract With America,” a 10-point legislative plan. In 2006, Democrats flipped the House with a legislative platform they called “Six for ’06.”

That is one of the most ahistorical pieces of analysis I’ve ever read. It is true that in 1994 Republicans were able to nationalize the midterm elections with their “Contract with America.” Not much of it was ever actually enacted, other than congressional reforms that Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards called “The Big Lobotomy.”

But raise your hand if you remember the “Six for ’06” that they assume was so central to Democrats flipping the house in 2006. Even a political junkie like me didn’t pay much attention to that one in the midst of Republican debacles like Katrina and the war in Iraq. Here’s how McClatchy reporters described it at the time:

The Democrats’ version [of the Contract with America] this year – “A New Direction for America/Six for ‘06” – is one page long. It lists six fairly general goals – and raises as many questions as answers.

The most glaring problem with that statement from Stolberg and Fandos is in its omission. They didn’t even mention the most recent example of a party winning control of the house—which happened in 2010. The only unifying agenda I remember from Republicans that year was that they all hated President Obama, wanted to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, and embraced Tea Party slogans like “Don’t tread on me.” One can only assume that if Democrats were running a similar campaign this year, these same reporters would be complaining that they didn’t have any governing agenda at all.

It seems as though the problem for Stolberg and Fandos is that they don’t like the agenda that Democrats say unites their candidates—lowering health care and prescription drug costs, increasing worker pay, and cleaning up corruption—which they call anodyne. Given that the test for whether or not an item made it into the Republican’s “Contract with America” was that it needed to garner at least 60 percent support among voters, that document was hardly risky.

Much of this piece is devoted to describing a few Democratic candidates that Stolberg and Fandos followed recently. In Texas, Colin Allred is promising to be a changemaker. Torres Small is talking to New Mexicans about preserving the national monuments that Trump wants to shrink. Jared Golden is promising the voters of Maine that he will protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. In other words, they are emphasizing messages that have always been important to Democrats and are particularly salient in their districts. That seems to pose a problem to these New York Times reporters, who are convinced that what Democrats need for these midterms is a catchy slogan. How about this one from Rep. Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.