People in Washington move in groups, think in groups, and act in groups. The adherence to comfortable mythology is why its denizens are so frequently shocked by campaign results outside the mean. Sometimes Washington’s faulty conclusions are because the math is off, but most of the time it comes down to basic misreads of human nature and politics.
Both Democrats and Republicans have their own myths about how 2018 will look. Right now, we have no idea if Trump will survive politically until 2018, given the political and legal storms surrounding his snake-bit administration. We have no idea how deep the Russian rabbit hole goes. We have no idea if he’ll just say “screw it” one day and walk out of the White House. We no longer live in normal times.
Given the wild political uncertainty surrounding this president and with the dark, volatile mood of a deeply divided electorate, Republicans and Democrats both need to go into 2018 with their eyes open, unencumbered by once comforting old conventional wisdoms.
Democratic Myth 1: Trump is enough.
There’s a lot to argue for this case. Outside of the GOP base, Trump is about as popular as kidney stones. However, the Democratic Party is ignoring a lesson the GOP learned to its detriment during the Clinton impeachment—an obliviously guilty serial liar half the country hates only gets them so far. Nationalizing an election is trickier than they think.
The Democrats can’t beat something with nothing, and almost any plan beats no plan every time. So far, Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez seems to have little to offer as a planner, and while Democratic recruiting looks strong, there are already a lot of jokers in the deck running the NY/LA/SF. Democrats will need more than “Trump sucks” unless the indictments start coming down, and even then, they’d be wise to have a richer issue portfolio, more diverse (that’s code for “moderate”) candidates, and something beyond the Bernie-Warren economic message.
Democratic Myth 2: Obamacare will save us.
The GOP’s Obamacare repeal is a really good issue. Really, really good. The ads practically write themselves. As I’ve written before, the pre-existing condition factor was always Obamacare’s killer sales angle. Republicans walked directly into that buzzsaw in the disastrous fumble of Obamacare repeal.
That’s not, however, a free pass to simply praise Obamacare as it stands. Chest-beating about pre-existing conditions or how many people have coverage? Those premium increases and ridiculous deductibles hit a lot of voters who might actually be won over if it sounded like the Democrats cared. Hell, even throw in a little free-market attack from the right and go after the absurd carve-outs and crony-capitalist protections for insurance companies, hospitals, and Pharma that were used to sell Obamacare to Congress in 2010.
Democratic Myth 3: Democrats are good at campaigns.
Democrats are not good at campaigns. They’re good at some things in campaigns, but not holistically. In the last decade, we took over 1,000 offices from the Democrats, not because of voter suppression or redistricting, or other excuses. Republicans won them because we recruited better candidates, raised more money, gave our candidates some policy latitude to win in blue and purple places, and out-hustled you. The GOP’s farm team is richer, and deeper.
Democrats should take a hard look at why they lost; part of it was putting too much faith in in the power of stunt-casting at the top. Yes, Barack Obama jacked black turnout into the stratosphere. Yes, Hillary Clinton was beloved by the floating world of elite money and media, but didn’t make the national campaign into a moment where women turned out in numbers over the mean. Those things are only marginally helpful to Democrat Jane Jones running for state Senate and less so in an off-year election.
If Democrats demand across-the-board ideological fealty to the red-state vote-repellent issues of gun control, abortion, and higher taxes, they’re boxing themselves out of dozens of potentially vulnerable seats. Making the best the enemy of the electable is a recipe for a losing ideological monoculture. Without some political flexibility for the Democratic candidate pool they’ll likely find that in swing states and districts that “we hate Trump, too” is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient.
Republican Myth 1: Trump doesn’t hurt us.
From viewing Trump as an epochal political force swept in on a new wave of nationalist populism, Republicans moved on from “well, these are just freshman stumbles” to “he’ll grow into the job” to “at least the base is still with us, right?” That’s a mighty thin reed to cling to when Trump increasingly defines the GOP.
Republican candidates think Trump’s eccentricities, manifest incompetence, large and small corruptions, foreign money, Russian sponsors, obstruction of justice, Twitter dysentery, broken promises, Hunger Games White House, and daily bedlam will never reflect on them. They think the base expects them to defend Trump, and so they do, never considering history or the political downside if they’re proven wrong.
I’ve reminded you before that the waves and wipeouts of the past often hit because of a perception of corruption. In 1974, Watergate set the bar. In 1994 Jim Wright and the House Bank scandal did what Republican couldn’t do for 50 years—end a Democratic majority. In 2006, many Republican members who said, “Well, I never took money from Jack Abramoff, and I didn’t even know Mark Foley” still lost seats or had easy races turn terrifying. In 2010, smug Democrats who thought they would hold power for decades lost it all over the Obamacare debacle.
Republican Myth 2: You have something to take home.
Remember when Republicans were going to be tired of all the winning? Well, that day never came, and there are no big wins on the horizon, and the leadership is too paralyzed to offer small, discrete pieces of legislation to paper over the complete failure to pass tax reform, an infrastructure bill, and the political and public-relations debacle of Obamacare repeal. No one is even pretending.
A part of this myth is that the Trump base will be happy that House and Senate Republicans at least tried. Think again. Trump voters hate Republicans just slightly less than they hate the Democrats and the media. They’ll blame the GOP for not passing a trillionty-eleven dollars to build the wall, for not bringing back their jerbs, for failing to fund mass deportations, and for not passing Trump’s ludicrous clown budget. Paul Ryan and the House didn’t MAGA, and now they must pay.
Republican Myth 3: They can run against the old villains.
Every story needs a hero, a villain, and a quest. For decades, people like me made ads for Republicans with a cast of excellent villains. “They” were stopping us from really getting the job done. “They” were making the country less safe, less respected, less moral, less… American.
Right now, there are massive Republican majorities in the House, control of the Senate, a Trump White House, and a friendly Supreme Court. So, who’s the villain in the story for the GOP now?
Democrats are a default choice, but the boogeymen in the past are like fading stories of distant dragons of yore. Ted Kennedy is dead. Barack Obama is windsurfing. Bill Clinton is a harmless, horny old gaffer. Hillary? Well, she’s Hillary. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are as close as it gets, but their power to frighten only mattered when they were in the majority.
Other potential enemies have limited political utility. For Trump voters, it’s Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the leadership but that is counterproductive, to put it mildly. For the Fox crowd, it’s the media. None of those are adequate to the task.
Of course, most efforts to break the spell of Washington’s conventional wisdom fetish fail and 2018 may be a dud for Democrats or a disaster for Republicans, but believing the most comfortable myths shared over a good steak in a D.C. restaurant is a sure path to another electoral surprise.