Centrist Democrats Lose Again In Georgia Special Election

Yesterday’s loss by Jon Ossoff has Democrats now wondering if opposition to Donald Trump is enough to enable them to retake control of the House. It remains to be seen if special elections in traditionally safe Republican seats provide a meaningful indicator, but Democrats did more poorly than expected in the Georgia race. This is causing some to question the strategy and messaging utilized by the Democrats.

Molly Ball has a rather boring description of Ossoff and his campaign:

Just as Handel aspired to be as generic a Republican as possible, Ossoff hoped be, as much as possible, a blank slate, a nice young man in whom disgruntled voters of all stripes could see the alternative they wanted. His campaign slogan proclaimed him “Humble. Kind. Ready to Fight”—a positionless vessel of 2017’s cross-cutting political angst. It was a decision many would second-guess after the results were in. For this district, at least, Ossoff believed it was the only way he could possibly win.

David Adkins thinks Democrats are making a mistake in trying to attract Romney voters:

In July of 2016, Senator Chuck Schumer made a statement that will go down as one of the greatest political miscalculations in modern history: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.

This strategy undergirded every decision of the doomed Clinton campaign, from ignoring the white working class in her Rust Belt firewall, to chasing suburban Republican women in Missouri and the South. It is a strategy that establishment Democratic operatives continue to pursue to this day…

In GA-06, Jon Ossoff ran a deliberately anti-ideological campaign. Centrist think tank Third Way bragged that Ossoff used a “centrist message aimed at attracting disillusioned Republican voters.” South Carolina’s Parnell, despite his Goldman Sachs background, ran a much more hard-charging campaign of Democratic values

In the end, Steve Kornacki told the tale, referencing not only Parnell’s surprisingly strong showing, but also the strong performances of other populist Democrats around the country: In specials so far, Dems have seen double-digit improvement in HRC’s ’16 # in KS-4, MT and now SC-5. In GA-6, Ossoff may not improve at all.

The lesson of the special elections around the country is clear: Democratic House candidates can dramatically outperform Clinton in deep red rural areas by running ideological, populist campaigns rooted in progressive areas. Poorer working class voters who pulled the lever for Trump can be swayed back to the left in surprisingly large numbers—perhaps not enough to win in places like Kansas, Montana and South Carolina, but certainly in other more welcoming climes. Nor is there a need to subvert Democratic principles of social justice in order to accomplish this: none of the Democrats who overperformed Clinton’s numbers in these districts curried favor with bigots in order to accomplish it.

But candidates like Clinton and Ossoff who try to run inoffensive and anti-ideological campaigns in an attempt to win over supposedly sensible, wealthier, bourgeois suburban David-Brooks-reading Republican Romney voters will find that they lose by surprisingly wide margins. There is no Democrat so seemingly non-partisan that Romney Republicans will be tempted to cross the aisle in enough numbers to make a difference.

The way forward for Democrats lies to the left, and with the working classes. It lies with a firm ideological commitment to progressive values, and in winning back the Obama voters Democrats lost to Trump in 2016 without giving ground on commitments to social justice. It does not lie in the wealthy suburbs that voted for Romney over Obama in 2012, or in ideological self-effacement on core economic concerns.

I agree that centrism doesn’t work, but the need for a message extends beyond economics. Shaun King had a better analysis last week when looking at the Virginia primaries, and tying it to the presidential election:

The Democratic Party has shifted to the right. It’s not anti-war. It’s not strong on the environment. It’s not strong on civil and human rights. It’s not for universal health care. It’s not strong on cracking down on Wall Street and big banks or corporate fraud. Ralph Northam was and is weak on all of those core principles of the progressive left, but we’re expected to get behind him, and candidates like him, as if we’re just a few small details away from seeing eye to eye with him. We aren’t. He’s not a progressive. He’s not a liberal. He’s hardly even a Democrat.

Millions of us who ultimately voted for Hillary Clinton felt the very same way about her. On issues ranging from war, to corporate fraud, to campaign finance, to universal health care, and so much more, her positions were not discernibly different from the most basic Republican talking points.

Was she better than Trump? Of course she was. But I’d literally rather have a Kardashian sister or Curious George be President of the United States over Trump. Someone being better than Trump cannot be our key metric for choosing candidates.

I’m hearing more and more of my progressive friends talk seriously about the need for us to form our own political party. I get it. At the very best we are slightly tolerated guests in the Democratic Party. We are as different from establishment Democrats as those establishment Democrats are from everyday Republicans.

Being begrudgingly tolerated is a terrible feeling. We are an enthusiastic, organized bunch, but I certainly don’t feel welcomed.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid all but confirmed as much in a widely shared tweet earlier this week in which she said, “Bernie and his followers are like that college friend who stays at your place for weeks, pays $0, eats your food & trashes your aesthetic.”

That Reid, who makes a living as a political commentator, came to this conclusion about Bernie Sanders and his millions of followers was deeply disappointing, but revealing. Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America. He has done far more for the Democratic Party than it has for him.

When the new head of the Democratic Party, Tom Perez, went on a speaking tour recently with Bernie, the enthusiastic crowds of thousands didn’t show up at every single venue to hear Tom — they were there for Bernie. Tom didn’t do Bernie a favor, Bernie did Tom a favor. Bernie got behind Hillary Clinton and campaigned for her all over the country and asked his supporters to follow his lead.

I was one of those people who did just that. I’ve been a Democrat all of my life and have campaigned for and donated to so many Democratic candidates across the years. That the millions of us who support Bernie and his values have been reduced to bad guests who don’t pay our way, eat up all the food, and trash the place, is a terrible insult rooted in something other than reality.

Democrats lost the House, the Senate, the presidency, the Supreme Court, and the strong majority of state houses and governorships across the country. I agree that it sure does look like somebody trashed the place, but it damn sure wasn’t Bernie and his followers. Anybody saying that is delusional.

King accurately describes how many on the left feel about the Democratic Party–including both those who held their nose and voted for Clinton, along with others who would not do this out of principle. These days it seems like the major difference between the parties is that the Republicans pander to fear of Muslims while Democrats spread hysteria about Russia. The great paradox of American politics is that we have hyperpartisanship in Washington, yet both parties promote essentially the same policies. Both parties support similar economic policies and continuation of the warfare/surveillance state.

When Republicans lost in a landslide in 1964 under Barry Goldwater, conservatives did not give up. It takes time to spread a message and build a party around it. Democrats mistakenly thought they had a winning strategy when Bill Clinton won, but his success was probably more due to his personal charisma than overly conservative policies. They squandered what could have been an advantage with the unpopularity of George W. Bush by moving to the right and ultimately adopting much of his agenda.

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2 Comments

  1. 1
    Mike Hatcher says:

    The wonder of life. For years I would bristle, and candidly sometimes get angry at the things you wrote. But I would read them anyway, seeking to expand my world view and also trying to develop a more compassionate understanding of "the opposition" of my conservative, religious beliefs. Now I find myself agreeing with you so often, in fact, I find the thing that usually upsets me most is when people attack you on this site claiming you aren't liberal. Anyway, I just have to compliment you the way you worded the statement in your second to the last paragraph – R's pandering to fears of Muslims, D's Russia hysteria, Hyper partisanship while both parties seem to maintain and increase the power of the government to spy on and control its own citizens. I don't know how I could agree with you more! – Ah, I think I'll be pining for the good old days of arguing about how large or small the threat is from the national debt and/or whom to blame for the debt.

  2. 2
    KP says:

    Mike Hatcher, agree with your message.

    The man is honest.

    That is KEY.

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