Democrats are smelling blood in the 2018 midterms. President Trump is horrendously unpopular, has all but admitted to obstruction of justice, and already has a special prosecutor investigating his connections with Russia. The Republican Party is even more unpopular, and they are pushing an agenda of mass desperation and death.
Democrats are looking for historical parallels to cement victory, and naturally enough, they've turned to their last midterm victory in 2006 for a strategy. Politico reports that some senior Democrats are seeking the advice of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee back in 2006.
That victory does provide some important lessons. But it is critically important that Democrats not just copy-paste from the Emanuel playbook. The times, they are very different.
Emanuel himself argued in a Politico podcast that the key to victory in any state or national election is found in the suburbs, where "more moderate voters exist." He claims that candidates must be recruited on the basis of whether or not they can win: "I purposely recruited candidates who reflected the temperament, tenor, and culture of their district. I didn't try to elect somebody that fit my image. I tried to help elect somebody that fit the image and the profile of the district."
First of all, this supposed neutrality is a crock. Like almost anyone with a point of view would have done, Emanuel slanted the recruitment process in 2006 to advance his own politics. He is a pro-war centrist — in 2005 he said on Meet the Press that he would have voted for the Iraq War even knowing that there were no WMDs in Iraq — and so he worked to elect more hawkish primary candidates like Tammy Duckworth, Christine Jennings, and Steve Filson. As a partial result, the Democrats elected in the '06 wave were mostly quite conservative. That was Emanuel's goal — it's just that as usual for a centrist, he masks his politics behind a facade of claimed technocratic competence.
Second, it's worth noting that running for supposed moderate suburban voters is precisely the strategy that Hillary Clinton just tried in 2016, and while it rolled up votes in Orange County and the Upper East Side, it didn't work on a national level.
But more importantly, Emanuel's brand of cynical deal-making politics and his handpicked congressmen led the Democratic Party as a whole into disastrous strategic errors. He personally lobbied to cut the size of the Recovery Act to below a trillion dollars, believing more was politically unrealistic. As the 2010 race got going, with unemployment stuck around 10 percent for the entire year, his moderates from the class of 2006 were a major force behind the Democrats' pivot to austerity and deficit reduction.
The result was that the party's congressional majority was wiped out. Ironically, the exact same moderates were most of the victims — including most of Emanuel's class of 2006. To embrace austerity during a depression is political suicide, but Emanuel and his Blue Dogs were too captured by neoliberal ideology to see where their own political self-interest lay.
Of course, one must always tailor candidates to districts. And when running in wealthy suburban ones, it will probably be necessary to admit rather milquetoast figures like Georgia's Jon Ossoff. However, more working-class and poor rural districts are far better-suited to barnstorming populists, like Rob Quist, who has pulled the race for the House seat in Montana to a near-tie. Such places are just as worth contesting — indeed, vitally necessary to solidify the foundation of a wise political strategy.
In retrospect, the year 2006 was the last moment when it was just politically possible to paper over the immense cracks in American society. Running a centrist campaign against an unpopular failure of a president was good enough to win. But directly after that election, the housing bubble began to deflate, leading to recession by the end of 2007, and then financial crisis and economic free-fall. In the years since, tremendous momentum has built up behind action to completely fix the damage from the financial crisis, reduce inequality, finally provide actual universal health care, attack racial, gender, and other inequalities, fix climate change, and drastically expand the welfare state. To win and maintain a majority, Democrats must actually fix the tremendous problems besetting the American people from every side.
The party as a whole must see that full-throated populism is both a moral and political necessity. Heck, even Ossoff is running hard against the wretched Republican health-care plan, which is polling at -33 in his district. There is simply no place anymore for unpopular, uninspiring, morally compromised transactional politicians like Rahm Emanuel.