A Lesson from Georgia’s 6th: Aspiring Young Candidates Should Not Run as Centrists in Red-districts.

Jon Ossoff (D) gives his concession speech after losing Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District special election in Atlanta — June 20, 2017 (Reuters / Aluka Berry)

The thing Jon Ossoff couldn’t seem to understand is that, when you run as a Democrat in a red-district who says “not everything my party stands for is correct”, Republicans are less inclined to vote for the Democrat, not more. If you run as a Democrat who says the Republicans have good ideas, and your Republican opponent concedes nothing to you, why would the Republicans vote for the Democrat?

The operative reason in this is simple: voters like strong candidates, not apologetic ones. And Jon Ossoff ran as a Democrat who was apologetic for most of the key parts of his party’s economic agenda.

Ossoff ran a campaign for Georgia’s 6th Congressional House District that included all the appropriate and popular philosophically-liberal social points: equity, tolerance, environmental justice. But he didn’t run as a progressive — an ideological label that is growing in popularity, and which includes the aforementioned but with the essential, sociological perspective that adds economic inequality, anger at politician’s efforts to ingratiate the wealthy off cutting social services, and the idea that a Resistance involves opposing Trump AND offering a political and economic agenda meant to serve working people of all kinds. Ossoff chose to take another route in his effort to oppose the now-victorious Trump-supporter, Karen Handel.

Ossoff ran a campaign meant not to scare Republicans with that progressive message — a campaign meant to appeal to Democrats who desperately wanted a win in a red-district, yet could appeal to the lowest common denominator among Republicans with his TV ads saying he’ll “cut waste in Washington”. He went the course of the Democrats from the 90’s — the New Democrats formed from the Clinton years, now popularly referred to as Neo-Liberals. Evidence of this can be found just in Ossoff’s Priorities page on his website, where he mentions Liberal platitudes about key issues, but the details of the economic message that are intrinsically linked to them are liken to what you could find on any moderate Republican’s website.

To this point, Ossoff offered a “dynamic, forward-looking, fiscally responsible economic policy that maximizes opportunity for entrepreneurs, workers, and investors…[he] will work to level the playing field for small businesses so they can grow and create jobs that will empower Georgians to strive, save, send our kids to college affordably, and retire comfortably. This, in addition to his aversion to supporting a single-payer healthcare plan, debt-free college, and an economically progressive tax code — all of which have a growing base of support within and outside the Democratic party — shows that he very-much wanted to pursue the centrist position he thought would carry him into office in a red-district. He ran on being inoffensive to Republicans by standing for little else his party stands for beyond broad-concepts and platitudes.

I recall the proverb my mother would iterate incessantly, that “if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything”. My preferred (if not more-fair to Ossoff) corollary is that if you stand for few principles, your foundation is built on sand. It doesn’t matter that you built this great campaign that acquired so much attention and promise; if you are shifty and malleable like sand just to be appeal to diametrically-opposed factions, when that tide of opposition comes in, you’ll realize how fundamentally weak the ground you’re standing on actually is.

Ossoff supporters lament their defeat — June 20, 2017

Ossoff, with all of his centrism and distance from the progressive wing of the Democratic party — and worse still with his lauded “civility” in his style — allowed himself to be painted in the way Handel wanted — the radical, violent Leftist, outsider, in-love with Nancy Pelosi. Even if none of it applied, he was so concerned with looking like the new Obama-style politician of our time that he fell into the same trap the former-President did. In the effort to be inoffensive, he didn’t fight hard enough.

But here’s the thing about gentlemen like Ossoff: they have such promise as young politicos, but they undercut this hope by clinging to a strategy that even Democratic voters have grown so tired of in the last decade. Worse, a strategy that has proven to cost Democrats more seats at the state and national level almost as much as gerrymandering would. Case in point, Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox prior to the Georgia’s election that “if Ossoff wins, establishment Democrats will take it as vindication of their approach versus the notion that democratic socialism is poised to sweep the country.” Obviously, this wasn’t the case, and to further the counter, Ossoff performed worse in Georgia’s 6th than Hillary Clinton did in the 2016 race, despite all the scandal and unpopularity surrounding President Trump.

Despite Trump at first being a potential threat to democracy, and now as a current one, the center-left Clinton couldn’t seem to make a case for her policy better than how she was better as a candidate than Trump. She hoped a liberal social policy, combined with a right-leaning foreign policy, and a centrist neoliberal economic agenda would win Democrats and moderate Republicans. At the very least, if she couldn’t inspire the progressive Democrats, Clinton hoped that Trump would scare more of those moderate Republicans to her side. Ossoff did and hoped for the same, but he was even averse to criticizing the President with the 35%-approval rating, as to not offend the Republicans he wanted to win over. Thus, the combination of offering a centrist policy agenda while trying to win moderate Republicans proves to be a failed plan in the course both these races. Furthermore, the hope Trump would scare moderate Republicans to the Democrats’ side is a recurring fool’s paradise.

But the larger lesson one can take from the failure of Ossoff can be one of two: you can either view his failure as a sign that the Democratic party needs to be less-liberal to win red districts, or that they need to be more progressive to appeal to voters beyond the perceptions they have of the establishment of the party. I would argue the latter, given that a populist-economic message combined with American values of equitable justice trend well in most regions of the country.

The problem isn’t what the Democrats stand for in principle — Americans support a progressive agenda, even in the South. The problem is that too many of the party’s candidates and leaders are running away from it in an attempt to reach-out (concede) to the Right.

What we shouldn’t do is mistake Ossoff’s loss as the sign progressivism doesn’t win elections. Harold Ford Jr. gave some Wednesday-morning-quarterbacking of his own on Morning Joe following Ossoff’s defeat, saying that

“Democrats — we need to leave this progressive-thing alone as aggressively as we are dealing with it…there’s no doubt it brings people together, but if this message alone would carry us to victory, then we’d have majorities in the House and the Senate”.

Yet, Ford seems to lack awareness about the Democrat’s strategy in the last decade — where they have apparently conceded the South to the Republicans since it’s too hard to argue Democratic principles there. My takeaway: if you can’t argue for your principles outside communities who agree with you, then why hold those values? Democrats must argue a strong defense and offense across the country to regain what they’ve lost, and that includes the South. But, they run candidates like Ossoff.

What we shouldn’t do is respond as Kirsten Gillibrand did, where the only thoughts to offer in the face of yet another defeat are empty platitudes meant to comfort the Left, and assert the “lead with our values” rhetoric that doesn’t detail any values beyond the anti-Trump sentiment.

What we need to do is run Democratic candidates who can articulate how a progressive economic message benefits working class people and brings opportunity to those whom our present system — now run by the billionaires in and outside the White House who would profit off it — has left behind. What Democrats need to do is focus their progressive message through candidates who actually stand for their principles, and can articulate that people’s job security and wages are not being undercut by an undocumented immigrant family, but by an unfair tax system, corrupt finance laws, and union-busting that benefits their employers more than them. That it is not Muslims and foreigners that harm your health and security, but a healthcare law that cuts people from insurance just to fund a tax cut for the wealthy. That Democrats can be outsiders too — that the people are universally tired of the way things are run on both the Democrats and the Republicans in power, but that the progressive-way-forward at least doesn’t disguise corporate and financial interests with empty “working-class rhetoric” like Trump does. And, let’s be honest, as some Democrats do.

This is not just philosophical; it’s practical. Progressives need to run on this messaging. Our ideology must show itself in the plans the Democrats carry as a part of their candidates’ platforms. It must show that our appeal goes beyond justified-but-intangible moralism, and that is in an economic justice message that seeks to empower the working class without demonizing whole swaths of the population to get us there.

I write this as a lesson to young, left-leaning politicos who seek to run for office in red-districts. I’m with you; I get that you want broad appeal and that the centrist way shows some degree of “nuance” or “intellectual openness to both sides of the political argument.” I understand that. I also understand that you will undercut your position and lose. I reiterate: if you run as a Democrat who says the Republicans have good ideas, and your Republican opponent concedes nothing to you, then why should Republicans ever vote for you? The Democrats are compelled to support young politicians — if they aren’t willing to support outsiders, they will at least support new-comers to appeal to frustrated voters. Why not stand with your own generation’s progressive message and represent the future? Why not show your resolve and the authenticity of your vision by running a progressive campaign, rather than an apologetic one?

If anything, good came out of Ossoff’s defeat, it is that it is another reminder that the progressive Resistance must run candidates as much as it runs marches, and run candidates with principles and substance. To avoid the fate of its predecessor, Occupy Wall St, the Resistance must run candidates and win, and I argue that we need to run young candidates who can intelligently and articulately show how progressive-path-forward shows a social and economic message that has practical benefits for the working class and for economic growth. A “New, New Deal”, as it were.

The Right will not break their resolve until Trump breaks them. We must not break our own resolve by running centrists, we must not wait for Trump to break the Republicans, and we must build the future of the Left.