In the wake of the midterm elections, most pundits are declaring at least a partial victory for the Democratic party. And indeed, by picking up perhaps three dozen seats in the House of Representatives to win control of that chamber, the party did land a successful blow on the Republicans.
Nevertheless, the 2018 midterms were disappointing for the Democrats in a couple of ways:
- They actually lost seats in the Senate (where, to be fair, the set of seats which happened to be up for election in this cycle was always going to be challenging for them.)
- In many of the races with the highest traditional-media and fundraising profiles (such as the Florida and Texas senate seats and the gubernatorial contest in Georgia), the Democratic candidate either lost quickly on election night, or is losing slowly in a drawn-out recount.
- As Bill Scher reported in RealClear Politics, the Democratic candidates who attracted the most attention on social media and YouTube also lost their races.
- The House seats which the Democrats did manage to flip were only in marginal districts. The Republicans secured every House district in which Donald Trump won at least 55% of the presidential vote in 2016; the hoped-for “blue wave” did not penetrate any of these red strongholds.
- All of this despite the highest midterm voter turnout rate since at least 1970, and especially high participation “among women, Latinos and young people,” which ordinarily would be an overwhelming advantage for the Democrats.
What’s more, the Democrats’ outlook for 2020 is bleak as well, for two big reasons. One is that Republicans still have an entrenched advantage at the state level — a reality which I will further explore in next week’s column.
The other, significant disadvantage facing the Democratic party in 2020 is that they still have not solved Trump. None of the party’s presumed presidential candidates can hope to match the incumbent in the media arena (the wrestling ring, or circus tent, or choose your preferred metaphor) which he has dominated for nearly three years now.
Trump enjoys an astonishing level of mastery over the national conversation. Whatever matter he chooses to address usually becomes the lead story on television news, a trending topic on Twitter, and a headline in the papers. Having spent decades cultivating, manipulating, and clashing with the media, Trump is a black-belt expert at getting his desired messaging into the minds of the public.
An item in the New York Times on Saturday demonstrated why this is such a problem for the Democrats. While the article explored the question of whether the party should be “Daring or Defensive” in its choice of 2020 standard-bearer, given the roster of familiar names it discussed, the answer might be “it won’t matter.”
As an example of a “defensive” name from the high-profile wing of the party, take Senator Elizabeth Warren. It is clear that Trump would relish Warren as an opponent in his re-election campaign, as he has indulged in a steady stream of provocative remarks against her. And indeed, she has taken the bait, even going so far as to release DNA test results in an (almost certainly unsuccessful) attempt to outrun Trump’s labeling. The Times article notes Warren’s self-image “as an opponent of corporate power,” but ask 100 voters what they think of when they hear her name, and not many will come up with that. Trump has already defined her public image as a “phony Indian,” and she hasn’t been able to neutralize that or take back the initiative.
On the “daring” side, the Times article explores the possibility of a Beto O’Rourke candidacy. O’Rourke’s campaign to represent Texas in the Senate drew lots of national attention (and money), and was seen as highly energizing to progressives and activists. However, despite these accolades and despite being regarded as charismatic, O’Rourke lost his race — to the spectacularly, notoriously uncharismatic Ted Cruz. (Googling “least likable senator” returns hundreds of Cruz-crushing results, in publications ranging from Foreign Policy to Barstool Sports.) And claims that Beto won a moral victory by “coming close in a deep-red state” aren’t congruent with the October 2016 speculation that Hillary Clinton might win Texas, amid reports that the state was “within the margin of error” and that her campaign and her party believed it was winnable. Trump could easily label O’Rourke a “failure” and is sure to do so, if Beto runs.
There are some potential Democratic candidates who might be able to resist Trump’s baiting and labeling, but they have other issues. Gruff and bluff Joe Biden might spar effectively in Trump’s trenches, but he’s 75, and the Times article portrays him as studiedly unenthusiastic about running. No-nonsense Amy Klobuchar might keep an even keel amid presidential insults, but she is little-known and would struggle to emerge from a crowded primary field. None of the senators, governors, or mayors mentioned as hopefuls seems to have Obama’s cool, aloof charisma or even Biden’s gregariousness.
For this reason, some commentators on Twitter suggest that what the Democrats need in 2020 is not a politician, but a celebrity candidate. After all, the argument goes, Trump showed that a celebrity who knows how to handle the media and cultivate a public image can enter the electoral arena at a high level and overcome a conventional, politically experienced opponent. Speculation has bubbled since 2016 that someone like Oprah Winfrey or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson could take up the Democratic mantle in 2020 and beat Trump at his own game.
And this exemplifies why the outlook for the Democrats is bleak —some people in the party look at their would-be leaders, and decide to dream instead of “The Rock” swooping in to save them.