Many on the left believe President Trump's abomination of an administration will deliver Congress to the Democrats in 2018 even if they do nothing more than sit back and binge-watch the Trump-fueled idiocy like it was a Netflix show. This is a poor strategy. Democrats must offer swing voters more than a blank alternative to an unpopular president. The party needs a clear strategy and message.
Yesterday, Democrats unveiled one.
That's good, because despite the president's cosmic ineptitude, Democrats have a significant challenge in front of them. In the House, they must capture 24 seats held by Republicans as well as hold the 12 districts won by Trump but occupied by Democrats. In the Senate, Democrats have to basically run the table, something that seemed completely ludicrous six months ago, but now might just be within reach. They first must hold vulnerable seats in deep-red Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and Indiana, as well as protect incumbents in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, all of which went for Trump. Democrats must then take out Dean Heller in Nevada, Jeff Flake in Arizona, and another Republican incumbent in the small number of seats the GOP is defending, none of which would look terribly promising under normal circumstances.
Of course, these are not normal circumstances. And many Democrats believe the path to victory is obvious: Blitz voters with a fusillade of Trump attack ads that will wound Republicans' electoral prospects across the board. But in reality, this might end up having the opposite of the intended effect.
It's sort of like how you can complain incessantly about your home state, but you get downright tribal when someone from New York City does it. Republican and Republican-leaning voters don't want to hear Democrats trash their guy. It would be better to let these voters come to the conclusion that Trump and the GOP are incompetent on their own, like when you need your boss to think your big idea is actually theirs.
Remember, too, that the strategy of trashing Trump did not work for Hillary Clinton, who spent millions on attack ads tearing into Trump as a misogynist, a liar, and a racist. She had Tim Kaine spend half the vice presidential debate saying the words "dogs pigs disgusting" over and over again like some kind of incantation. The American people were not unaware of this man's transgressions. Sixty-two million of them marched right out and voted for Trump anyway.
It is certainly true that the president is historically unpopular and that his administration has been an unholy mess. Only William Henry Harrison had a more miserable first seven months, and that's because he was dead for six of them. Even Trump's children want his presidency to be over. His galloping unpopularity is dragging the entire Republican Party down with him.
But most Democrats increasingly sense that they need more than for the president to own-goal himself over and over again. They have to offer voters a clear alternative. Last Thursday, Vox's Jeff Stein scooped the party's new slogan: "A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages" The word you are intended to remember is "better." And while it sounds both a little limiting (Will nothing else get better?) and a little strange (Is it a promise or a boast?), it certainly has a clear advantage over the battle cries under consideration at RNC headquarters, including "Choose To Be Uninsured," "2018: A Foregone Collusion," and a dark-horse, Stephen King-inspired contender that would simply cast a spell on voters with the word "Less."
In a coordinated messaging blitz yesterday, Democratic leaders unveiled the broad details of their new slogan, including an emphasis on breaking up corporate monopolies with new anti-trust measures, a big push to lower drug prices, a major infrastructure initiative, and a job-retraining initiative based on tax credits. And while these are all basically solid ideas, there are some significant problems. First, it's not clear that this agenda gets at the root causes of inequality in the U.S. The problem is not necessarily that there are too few cable companies charging customers too much, but rather that entities like Comcast, Amazon, and Uber are hoovering up the country's wealth without distributing enough of it back in the form of middle-class jobs and wages. Tax credits might be a perfectly reasonable policy tool, but they do not get people fired up and ready to go.
More importantly, is health care in this vision beyond drug prices? It is almost beyond belief that neither Nancy Pelosi's Washington Post op-ed nor the CNN broadside by Democratic Reps Cheri Bustos, David Cicilline, and Hakeem Jeffries mentions ObamaCare at all. Where is the public option? Where are the policies to lower those hated deductibles? Where is the outrage about what GOP elites are doing right now? Democrats desperately need to get ahead of the health-care debate by proposing serious repairs and additions to ObamaCare that address the things that voters continue to dislike about it, rather than waiting for the GOP either to replace it or wreck it on purpose.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of a party platform depends in large part on whether reporters will actually cover it. The Democrats' supposed extreme ideological makeover is not so much a big, shocking reveal as it is virtually indistinguishable from the platform Hillary Clinton ran on. Her problem was that the media was more interested in her emails than in anything else she had to say about anything, and that the ads she chose to run focused far more on Trump than her own ideas.
Democrats new "Better" plan may struggle to break through the din of partisan warfare and really reach voters. To do that, they must push some truly bold initiatives, including ideas like a full employment plan and a financial transactions tax, rather than just repackaging their existing platform. And it's not just because big ideas can help win elections, but because they might actually do meaningful work preventing runaway inequality from destroying the American experiment.