After Tuesday, Democrats Still Need a Winning Message. How About 'Respect'?

For all the euphoria over Tuesday’s result, the Democratic Party is still in trouble. But the victories could point the way to the message it desperately needs.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Amid the Democrats’ stunning coast-to-coast victory Tuesday night, a song kept running through my head: “Respect” by Aretha Franklin.

Yes, the election was a repudiation of Donald Trump and a testament to the importance of candidate recruitment and organization, but something larger was at work. The voters showed respect for… well, respect.

In New Jersey, they replaced Gov. Chris Christie, a pioneer in insult politics, with Phil Murphy, whose slogans were “We are better than this” and “I’ve got your back.” In Virginia, Dr. Ralph Northam’s low-key campaign stressing inclusion and health care bested Ed Gillespie, a lobbyist turned mini-Trump. It showed that vicious, lying attack ads that stoke fear of African Americans and immigrants don’t work in the suburbs, where most elections are decided.

Down ballot, Danica Roem, a trans woman, trounced a self-described “chief homophobe” incumbent, while Chris Hurst, whose girlfriend was killed by gunfire at their television station, beat the candidate of the NRA, an organization that respects guns more than people’s lives. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner was elected district attorney after a career spent defending suspects who weren’t only disrespected by police, they were often beaten or killed by them.

This feels like the beginning of something that Democrats don’t have—a message. It better be. For all the euphoria over Tuesday’s result, the Democratic Party is still in trouble, especially in red states and swing states that didn’t have many elections Tuesday. The only way to assure that the experts are right about their good chances in 2018 is to develop a meaningful frame around the usual laundry list of policy proposals.

For the last four decades, Republicans have been much better at fashioning themes based on values. Ronald Reagan talked about “faith, family, freedom, work and neighborhood,” while Democrats—leery of “family values” as a dog whistle for a narrow right-wing agenda of opposition to abortion and prayer in schools—more often built their party on identity politics and interest groups. Even Obama’s inspirational “Hope and Change” message was not directly connected to values.

Now, as Republicans sink into the primordial ooze of white identity politics, Trump has offered Democrats an opening to be the party of decency, diversity and democracy—of “Truth, Justice and the American way.”

But does this evoke Superman or reek of Dudley Do-Right?  Don’t Sean Connery’s rules in “The Untouchables” apply (“If they bring a knife, we bring a gun”)? Wasn’t Michelle Obama wrong to say “When they go low, we go high”?

Respect doesn’t mean that Democrats can’t hit Trump and his spineless acolytes hard. What’s he going to tweet when they do—“Democrats said they were going to be respectful. Hypocrites!”? That’s not a winning retort from the Slimer-in-chief, who respects no one with the possible exceptions of Vladimir Putin and King Salman.

If progressives can be intolerant of intolerance, they can disrespect—even attack—candidates who follow Trump down the rat hole. And they can (and likely will) use Trump’s own words against Republican congressional candidates. A Republican consultant told me the 2018 Democratic ad she fears most is one nailing GOP incumbents who “voted for a health care bill that even President Trump called ‘mean’.”

But for that to work, Democrats can’t be mean themselves. Positioning itself as the decency party requires them to discourage cheap shots like the Latino Victory Fund ad in Virginia that featured a pickup truck—sporting a Gillespie bumper sticker—that terrorized children. That kind of “independent expenditure” wins few votes and gives Republicans ammunition.

To win, Democrats also have to respect each other, not purge “neo-liberals” and posture as truer to the populist faith. In Virginia, Northam and Tom Perriello fought a spirited primary; after he lost, Perriello—the more populist of the two—campaigned his heart out for the man who beat him and the rest of the ticket. Bernie Sanders supporters are understandably angry about former DNC chair Donna Brazile’s book alleging that the party tilted toward Hillary Clinton. But they need to follow Perriello’s lead and look forward, not back.

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Respect means subordinating deeply held positions—no matter how valid—to winning power and containing Trump. The New Jersey Education Association, which almost always backs Democrats, was so angry this year at state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, for not toeing the labor line that it backed his Trump-supporting Republican challenger. (Sweeney won easily.)

Some health care advocates want to marginalize any Democrats who prefer to fix Obamacare before committing to Medicare-for-all. NARAL Pro-Choice America is upset that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will not withhold funds from Democratic candidates who oppose abortion. And that’s only the first of the circular firing squads. Democratic Party constituencies need to know that applying litmus tests and bashing other Democrats is an unaffordable luxury in the age of Trump.

Back in 1875, Republicans started calling themselves the GOP—the Grand Old Party. If Democrats are to be the POR—the Party of Respect—they need to put some meat on the bones. What are they for? (“Por” in Spanish, making it a politically convenient acronym.)

Democratic issues and ideas fit nicely under three rubrics: Family, Democracy and Service.

Family includes the “kitchen table agenda” of jobs, health care, education, and retirement. Instead of discussing them separately, they need to be connected to deeper values. For instance, the House tax bill isn’t just a giveaway to corporations and the rich, it eliminates the $4,000 per child tax deduction. That makes it harmful to larger families, though it hasn’t yet been characterized that way.

Democracy is at risk under Trump and Democrats need to explain to voters the way his lies and attacks on the courts, the press, and our allies hurt the country. This is where they can explain what Joe Biden calls Trump’s “phony nationalism” and how it threatens world peace.

Service is the outgrowth of respect and decency. It’s spirit is represented by the veterans now running for office as Democrats, and all those serving as first responders and in education and the caring professions at home. Service encompasses what we owe each other and the planet and offers a compelling contrast to Trumpian greed and self-regard. Enacting a national service program that would be open to all is a natural for Democratic candidates.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. At least we know the theme song. The moment to contain Trump and end our national nightmare is now less than a year away.