Democrats continued their 2017 run of being unable to win special elections in strongly Republican districts on Tuesday. These results have led people to ask what the Democratic Party must change if it is to take back Congress (and eventually the White House).
I have what may be the most cynical answer, but one that is unavoidable: What the Democrats need is better marketing. That's really about it.
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that as a general principle Democrats should stop worrying about policy. I care a lot about policy, which is why I write a lot about it. And of course they have to recruit good candidates and build up a grassroots infrastructure. What I'm arguing against is the idea that Democrats don't have an agenda. It's understandable that many people believe that, but it's completely wrong.
But first, let's get this out of the way: There was absolutely nothing surprising about the outcome in the special election in Georgia on Tuesday, unless you find "Republicans vote for Republican" to be a shocking headline. That's why Karen Handel's victory tells us very little about Democratic prospects in 2018. According to the Partisan Voter Index created by the Cook Political Report, there are 77 congressional districts held by Republicans that are more Democratic-leaning than the Georgia 6th. That's an awful lot of opportunities for Democrats.
Nobody said that Republicans were doomed when they lost the special election two weeks ago in California to fill the seat vacated by Xavier Becerra when he became the state's attorney general, because it's a strongly Democratic district (I'm guessing you didn't even know they had an election there). And Democrats have outperformed their traditional showings in all the special elections that have taken place to fill the seats of Republicans who have taken jobs in the Trump administration — just not by enough to swing them, since they were all very Republican. Finally, as Steve Benen points out, in 2009 there were five special elections for Congress and Democrats won all five, but that didn't stop them from getting blown out in 2010.
That isn't to say that things might not have gone a different way in Georgia if different choices had been made. The Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff was a young, first-time candidate with some weaknesses, and he made a decision to portray himself as a non-threatening technocrat and to barely talk about President Trump. The Republican campaign, in contrast, was intensely tribal. Their message, hammered home on TV and in direct mail, was in essence that Karen Handel should be elected because SanFranciscoNancyPelosiKathyGriffinAnarchistLiberalDemocraticHippies!!! (just look at this ad, or this one).
Might Ossoff have done better if he had run more clearly against Trump and tied Handel more to the president? Perhaps. Either way, there are still fundamental questions for Democrats about what they're presenting to the public. In a piece published as the returns were coming in that got a good deal of attention, Vox's Matthew Yglesias writes that "one thing [Democrats] might want to try is developing a substantive policy agenda to run on." That would be far preferable than having to argue about how mad voters were about a video a comedian posted on Twitter.
So we need to be clear about this: Democrats have an agenda. There is no policy area about which Democrats don't have both a general orientation and specific ideas and goals. Indeed, the "You don't have an agenda!" critique is often paired with "Stop with all the white papers and 10-point plans!", which shows that when people say Democrats don't have an agenda, what they really mean is that they don't have a bunch of simplified messaging and pithy slogans that describe their agenda.
That's a fair critique, but we ought to see it for what it is. It's about marketing, and yes, Republicans are better at that than Democrats are. While there are Republican policy wonks, generally speaking Republicans care far less about policy and haven't put as much thought into the positions they take, which is why we've watched them flail around for the last five months on issues like health care and taxes. They have complete control of Washington, but they can't decide what they want to do with it. Democrats didn't have that problem the last time they had control, and they won't next time either.
What Republicans do have is a small number of policy mantras they repeat endlessly, distillations of their ideas that are so simple even the most distracted and ignorant voter can understand them. Cut taxes. Get government off our backs. Traditional values. Strong defense. They're simple and repeatable, and they never change.
That message is like a uniform any Republican candidate anywhere can don, whether they're running for president or Congress or dogcatcher. They don't have to think about and they don't have to spend time explaining it. So yes, it would be exceedingly useful for Democratic candidates if they had the same thing, particularly because their policy ideas are the popular ones. Americans like the particular things Democrats want to do: Raise the minimum wage, have strong worker protections, protect the safety net, address climate change, protect abortion rights, guarantee secure health coverage, make college more affordable, and so on. That isn't the problem. The problem is that they have to spend time explaining all those things, at the same moment they're fending off crude culture war attacks from their opponents.
I suspect that a lot of Democrats wish that politics didn't have to be so simple-minded, and you could persuade people to vote for you on the strength of your ideas, whether those ideas could fit on a bumper sticker or not. But unfortunately, that's not the world we live in. A party needs slogans and synopses and a snappy synthesis of its proposals.
Democrats don't need to worry about their agenda; what they need is a better way to sell it.