Why are the Democrats so bad at politics?


It’s certainly valid to blame James Comey, Russian hacking, Wikileaks, John Podesta, and Anthony Weiner’s solipsism for Trump’s victory last month. In an election decided by only 100,000 votes, many factors can be (and were) decisive. (That fact is also convenient for people who write about politics, like me. It means there’s no shortage of pet theories that one can bloviate about!)

But too much focus on the presidential race has obscured the fact that the Democrats basically sucked across the board. In the House, the Republicans appear to have won the popular vote by more than 1%. In other words, House Democrats managed to underperform a historically unpopular presidential candidate by 3%. The House popular vote is an interesting and somewhat misleading metric, because it factors in two separate effects: first, whether the district was contested at all – if not, the winning party’s vote increases by roughly 200,000, and the losing party’s vote doesn’t change –, and second, which candidate attracted more support. I haven’t crunched the numbers myself, but I’d wager that factor 1 was the primary reason that House Democrats underperformed with respect to Hillary Clinton. For instance, as Josh Marshall noted, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in TX-32, a Republican-leaning district north Dallas. But, the Democrats lost the House race there. Why? Because they didn’t even field a candidate. (They might have taken The Wire’s line, “You cannot lose if you do not play” a little too literally.)

Everyone knows the Democratic Party, and the DNC in particular, is full of fuckups. One of John Podesta’s aides confused “illegitimate” with “legitimate”, causing Podesta to fall for the most basic internet ruse known to man, the phishing email. And the hacked DNC emails reveal that its staffers somehow thought that Bernie Sanders was the one whose campaign was a “mess”. (Hint: That would actually be the campaign of the person who managed to lose a 25+ point lead in 2008 and almost again in 2016.) Unlike some BernieBros, I don’t believe the primary wasn’t “rigged”, but you would at least think the professional politicians at the DNC would understand how politics works better than I do.

But failing to field a candidate for a winnable seat is a level of incompetence that goes far beyond scheduling primary debates for the weekends or writing mean emails about Bernie. Winning elections is the only reason the DNC exists. If they can’t even find a candidate to run against the guy who compared the Republican Party’s legislative strategy to that of the Taliban, then what the hell are we paying them for? We’ve gone from Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s 10-state strategy, and the party as a result has been decimated at every level of government.

But the failure of the Democrats isn’t just a bureaucratic or an organizational failure. There’s a deeper rot. Let me (liberally) quote Atrios, from May 2016:

What I see every midterm election cycle, and comment on every time, is that the Democrats are determined to run elections about nothing. Keep your heads down, doing nothing but raising money until Labor Day, distance yourself from party ID as much as possible, drop all your money on TV ads which focus on “character” and mostly avoid any policy issue, and then hope that on election night the little roulette ball falls into the right slot and you luck yourself into a congressional seat. Makes the consultants who force this on candidates wealthy. Doesn’t seem to win seats or inspire turnout. But, hey, let’s blame The Left for not showing up, not the people who get rich losing elections.

The part about “people who get rich losing elections” is dispiritingly true. While Hillary Clinton had the good sense not to hire Mark Penn the second go-around, much of the core of Hillaryland remained the same. These were people who had endured all of the right-wing attacks against her, and seemed to be valued for that loyalty alone, regardless of any political acumen.

It was astounding reading this quote, from a retrospective of Clinton’s failed campaign in 2008:

By presenting her as the virtual incumbent, the insider who knew how to make the wheels of government work from day one, she was being inferentially positioned as running for the third term of Bill Clinton,” says a senior adviser. “We unwittingly set it up for Obama to play not only the anti-Clinton but the outsider, who was going to come in and clean out the gray-haired, patronage-laden gumshoes of Washington’s shadow government.”

Sound familiar?

But more important than keeping counsel with the same old hacks was failing to present a coherent message. As Atrios says, “Democrats are determined to run elections about nothing.”

Back in April, I wrote an email to my friend about the prospective Clinton-Trump matchup. I found it concerning, I said, that “Trump appears to have a more substantive message (jobs, trade, immigration) than Hillary, if you buy the idea that she’s running on “identity politics” (as nebulous as that term is). I suppose I still don’t understand the substantive message that’s supposed to inspire me to vote for her.”

And, to be honest, I still don’t. With Trump, any ordinary person (i.e., not someone whose addicted to politics, as I am) would understand exactly what his platform is: building a wall, keeping out Muslims, and getting back jobs lost to China and Mexico. With Clinton, I don’t think that’s the case. Could an average independent voter (who, I should mention, are literally the dumbest people in the electorate) name three policies that Clinton planned to implement?

People talk about the choice that Hillary made to focus her campaign on negative attacks against Trump, thereby sacrificing the opportunity to talk about her policy platform or to make the campaign something more than a personality contest. But this is a false dichotomy. Trump was remarkably successful in putting forth policy proposals (no matter how ill-conceived and racist) as well as in attacking Clinton. The key to his success was pithiness, something the Democrats can’t seem to wrap their heads around. Think of all of the slogans from Trump’s campaign and supporters: “Lock Her Up”, “Trump That Bitch”, “Build the Wall”, “Law and Order”, “War on Christmas”, and, of course, “Make America Great Again”. What did we get from Hillary? “Stronger Together”? “Trumped-up Trickle-down Economics”? “I’m With Her”? It’s telling that the most memorable anti-Trump messages were the wounds he inflicted on himself, especially in the Billy Bush sexual assault/”locker room talk” tape (as they say, tomato, tom-a-toh). For as much as it was lampooned, there’s something to be said for Bernie’s beating of the “millionaires and billionaires” horse.

The Democratic Party has had this problem for a long time. It’s why Frank Luntz’s job is so easy. We continually nominate uncharismatic and wonkish candidates who haven’t grasped that political language is just as important, if not more so, than policy proposals. Drew Westen, for all of his faults, had this pegged back in 2008.

Ask anyone in America to write a similar essay called “So you want to be a liberal?” and they could create a long list off the top of their heads: liberals tax and spend, they cut and run, they believe in big government, they’re fiscally irresponsible, they take money from hard-working people’s paychecks and give it to able-bodied welfare loafers, they’re weak on defense, they’re soft on crime, they support the gay lifestyle, they preach promiscuity to our children, they lack family values, they persecute people of faith, they want special rights for gays and minorities, they cater to special interests, they appoint activist judges who overrule legislators and propositions with broad support.

That’s branding. And the success of that branding can be measured in just how many phrases come to mind in a matter of seconds, even among those who don’t accept them: “tax-and-spend liberals”, “big government”, “able-bodied welfare loafers”, “weak on defense”, “soft on crime”, “the gay lifestyle”, “family values”, “special rights”, and “activist judges”.

What are the comparable phrases and caricatures on the left?

I can’t think of a single one. Why?

Because the left has no brand, no counterbrand, no master narrative, no counternarrative. It has no shared terms or “talking points” for its leaders to repeat until they are part of our political lexicon.

Read the whole book: it’s excellent, if a bit belabored. Westen focuses on what Bill Clinton knew about politics and elections that John Kerry and Al Gore did not: that politics is about emotions, not reason, and that “political persuasion is about networks and narratives.”

I want to close with what I think was the Clinton campaign’s deepest failure, and one that has been somewhat overlooked in the post-election coverage. The Washington Post wrote an article in June 2016 about Clinton and Trump’s differing approaches to the general election. See if you can spot what’s wrong:

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a Democratic leader regarded as one of his party’s sharpest political thinkers, predicted that the pattern will continue.

“For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two or three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia,” Schumer said. “The voters who are most out there figuring out what to do are not the blue-collar Democrats. They are the college-educated Republicans or independents who lean Republican in the suburbs.”

If Chuck Schumer, who is an impossibly bad politician, is “one of [the Democratic] Party’s sharpest political thinkers,” we’re truly fucked. (I shudder to think of how embarrassingly inept in opposition he will be compared to Mitch McConnell.)

Here’s the thing about Republicans: they literally don’t give a shit about what Republican politicians do wrong as long as they hate the right people and love fetuses. And Trump certainly hated the right people and at least pretended to love fetuses. Thinking that suburban Republicans were up for grabs is a level of boneheadedness that should be disqualifying in politics. To take a random poll, 71% of Republicans were not really bothered by reports of Russian interference in the election. 71%!

Westen talks in his book about “the partisan brain” and its immense capacity for rationalization. (This is one case where “both sides do it” is actually true.) He conducted a research study on “fifteen committed Democrats and fifteen committed Republicans”, in order to assess what happens when partisans confront information that is unpleasant – something that contradicts what they believe about the rightness of their party/ideology.

He reports,

But the political brain also did something we didn’t predict. Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix”, giving new meaning to the term political junkie.

And that’s the crux of the 2016 election. When Hillary adopted Chuck Schumer’s brilliant strategy of appealing to Republican voters in Bucks County, by reminding them of Trump’s odious behavior towards Khizr Khan or Alicia Machado or Gonzalo Curiel, or of his relationship with Putin or Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Republican voters pondered that message, dismissed it, and felt better as a result. God bless America.


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