Coming to Grips

When the Tent Gets Too Big: A Democratic (and Republican) Reckoning

Democrats may still be reeling from the 2016 election, but they aren’t the only ones who need to think about what their party needs to be willing to sacrifice to increase voter share.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

As the Democratic Party comes to grips with the results of the 2016 election, smaller races have started to take on a much larger significance than they normally would.

The special election in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District was the first such race. The Democrat, Jim Thompson, lost by 7 percentage points to Republican Ron Estes. The next one, Georgia’s 6th District special election, is heading to a runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. And now the mayoral race in Omaha, Nebraska, is coming up in early May.

Two weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee held a “unity” event with Heath Mello, an Omaha mayoral candidate. NARAL hit the DNC hard for its support of Mello, calling him “anti-choice,” and Bernie Sanders, a guest at the unity event, caught a lot of criticism for standing with Mello.

The evidence for NARAL’s charge is that Mello once supported a law that instructed doctors to inform women that they may view an ultrasound of their baby before terminating a pregnancy. Though Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, refers to Mello as “pro-life,” he has been adamant he would never restrict any access to abortion and he enjoys a 100 percent rating from Nebraska Planned Parenthood.

The issue isn’t abortion, or it isn’t just abortion: It’s everything that a party stands for and what it’s willing to sacrifice as it increases its voter share. It isn’t just a question for the Democrats.

The question both parties are asking themselves, or should be, is “Who do we want to be?” For Republicans, this all came into stark focus when Donald Trump tore through their primaries. The cheat-sheet of Republicanism—“pro-life,” “for smaller government,” “pro-free trade”—was systematically destroyed by their eventual nominee. He rarely spoke of abortion at all, and when he did he sounded like a Martian who had landed on Earth only to learn about the pro-life position from the caricatures leftists painted of it. When he said he would be open to arresting women who had had an abortion, it was clear this was not a candidate who had a deep regard for or understanding of the pro-life movement.

It didn’t stop at abortion, of course. As Trump laid waste to longtime conservative positions, Republicans had to keep reminding themselves that he had assured them of a good Supreme Court pick if elected. He delivered on that promise. He also, in many ways, has governed as a traditional Republican president. He’s learned the language and sometimes uses it correctly. The weekend he shunned the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he didn’t just have a rally, he spoke at the National Rifle Association’s convention and promised them that “the eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.” This was a far cry from the candidate who agreed with Hillary Clinton on using the no-fly list to curtail who was allowed to own guns.

So what now? Trade is one area where Trump had not budged. If the party’s president is openly against free trade, does the party move in that direction with him? When Trump talks of ending Obamacare, it sometimes seems he wants to replace it with something to its left. He has spoken positively of the medical systems of Canada and Scotland, not exactly conservative stalwarts. “We will take care of everybody” is not what a small-government conservative says. Yet his message is the one that won. There’s no question he grew the Republican tent and appealed to people who aren’t natural Republican voters.

Dick Morris used to say that if you don’t want your candidate to openly talk about being pro-choice, have them talk a lot about the environment. People will make the connection themselves. The idea is that where you stand on one issue, especially one like abortion, can represent where you stand on a number of other issues. On the conservative side, being pro-life would often mean you were for smaller government or were a defender of the Second Amendment. Where you stood on life on the right or choice on the left represented where you would stand on everything else.

It didn’t always fit, exactly, especially when Republicans ran in a blue area or Democrats ran in red ones. In 2004, in Georgia, I got to watch two candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Rick Crawford and Republican Phil Gingrey, debate. Crawford got up to speak and told the room how he was born in Georgia and how he was just like them. “I’m pro-life,” he said. “I’m against gay marriage, I want to bring back prayer in schools, and I don’t want to take away your guns.”

Dumbfounded, I double-checked the program to see that I was indeed listening to a Democrat. “But what we are doing on outsourcing just isn’t right,” he continued. He was a protectionist. That’s what made him a Democrat in Georgia. That was enough to make him one of the liberal activist blog Daily Kos’s main targeted races that year, the same Daily Kos that rescinded its endorsement of Heath Mello for not being perfect on choice. Crawford lost that year but then won a seat in 2007. Did the Democrats win with a candidate like Crawford? Not exactly. In 2012, Crawford officially became a Republican.

“What do we stand for?” is not a bad question for the party completely out of power, and the party that controls all branches of power, to be asking itself.

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For Democrats, they have to answer whether they can throw support, and more importantly resources, behind candidates who are distant from them ideologically on tenets central to party identity. Can they support pro-gun candidates? What about candidates who support charter schools? Can a Democrat be anti-union? What about anti-immigration? How much should a party bend to grow its tent?

For the Republicans, the idea that they should look ahead to what the party will be after the age of Trump is one they must entertain sooner rather than later. So many Republicans are still in the “we won!” phase after the election. The question they should be asking is “who is ‘we’?”