Listen To The Candidates, Not The Beltway Cocktail Party Chatter

[ Posted Thursday, May 17th, 2018 – 17:20 UTC ]

Mainstream media political pundits are often accused of focusing too much on "the horserace" aspect of elections, to the detriment of the actual issues being fought over in the race. It's so much easier to just watch the polls go up and down (and bang out an article about it) than it is to do a deep dive into what candidates are actually running on. At the most, the pundits will critique candidate television ads, always with an eye on how they are affecting the polls.

The pundits also have a few favorite storylines when it comes to assessing the two major political parties, which are trotted out every election cycle it seems (note: when it comes to assessing third-party chances, the theme of any story is inevitably: "Look at the funny candidates! How amusing!"). On the Democratic side, this usually takes the form of one or two storylines: "Democrats are divided and can't agree on one unifying message that can fit on a bumpersticker" or, conversely: "Democrats are running solely on not being Republicans." There's a third one dusted off when neither of these fit, as well: "Democrats have no new ideas."

Let's take these one by one, because while none of them are really true this year, these themes will inevitably appear in a newspaper near you very soon. First: "Democrats are divided, and need a killer bumpersticker slogan." In 2018, these stories will revolve around the big split in the party from 2016, and contrast what "Berniecrats" are pushing for with what the "Clintonistas" want. Intraparty spats will be magnified beyond all proportion, and the theme of "are Democrats going to concentrate on urban and minority votes, or try to recapture white and rural votes?" will figure prominently.

This is a false dichotomy in general, but when you get more specific it totally breaks down. Midterm elections have no one candidate, after all. They are not national races. They are fought in 33 or 34 states with Senate members up for re-election as well as all 435 House districts. There is no "top of the ticket" -- all the races are local, to one degree or another. So there really is no need for one all-encompassing succinct nationwide message for the party to run on. Each race has to be tailored to an individual state or House district, so there will be many bumpersticker slogans and many core issues candidates will be championing. This is how it should be, and can indeed be the way to win lots and lots of these races. So Democrats running for urban House districts can talk about the important issues for their constituents-to-be, while rural candidates will be free to focus on issues pertinent to their states or districts. In presidential races, having one unifying message can be important, but not so much in midterm congressional elections. In other words, the party's unifying message is necessarily going to be: "Run on whatever works for you in your district."

As for the Bernie/Hillary split, it is nowhere near as wide as the pundits would have you believe. It is not as wide as the Tea Party schism within the Republican Party, and I would argue it isn't even as wide as the Blue Dog Democrat factionalism that Barack Obama had to put up with (even with Democratic control of both chambers of Congress). But more on that in a moment.

This midterm season, the dominant theme from the pundits has been: "Democrats are going to run solely on being anti-Trump." This is known in military circles as "fighting the last war." Hillary Clinton could conceivably be accused of running an anti-Trump campaign, but then again she was running against Donald Trump. But this time around Trump's not on the ballot anywhere. So why should Democrats try to run against him?

This, obviously, is an oversimplification. Of course Democrats are solidly against Trump, but that doesn't mean it's going to be the main focus of any individual campaign. The whole concept of "all Democrats have is hating Trump" really comes from the inside-the-Beltway cocktail circuit, and has no actual basis in reality. When reporters actually get out and actually listen to Democratic candidates, they almost always come away astonished that Trump is barely mentioned in the speeches and presentations. Case in point is a Washington Post article today by E. J. Dionne, which begins with one of the more solid opening paragraphs I've recently come across:

Let's posit three rules of political analysis. First, data is better than presuppositions. Second, actual votes cast can tell us more than the polls. Third, even when we carefully examine the facts, we're all vulnerable to seeking confirmation of what we believed in the first place.

On the basis of these rules, some widely accepted assumptions about our political moment can be seen as, at best, incomplete.

Democrats, it's often said, are so obsessed with President Trump and the Russia scandal that they talk of nothing else. But anyone who spent Tuesday listening to a regiment of potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates present their case at the liberal Center for American Progress's Ideas Conference can testify that this is simply untrue.

Attacks on Trump were far less prominent than promises related to economic justice and warnings about the ways in which the United States is falling behind other parts of the world. When Trump did come under fire, it was usually on health care, his lopsided tax cut for corporations, or administration corruption outside the context of the Russia inquiry.

If you want to argue that the Holy Grail of "a persuasive and unified Democratic message" has yet to be discovered, well, sure. Still, you could hear behind many of Tuesday's speeches echoes of John F. Kennedy's 1960 slogan, "Let's get America moving again." The idea was that Trump and the GOP are ignoring the problems most voters care about, or are making them worse.

And as The Post's liberal blogger Greg Sargent has insisted, anyone who explores what Democratic candidates on the ground are campaigning on will notice how much they're emphasizing bread-and-butter concerns.

For "what we believed in the first place" and "some widely accepted assumptions," please read: "what I heard at that fabulous cocktail party last weekend, and we all agreed was a brilliant analysis of the situation." This inside-the-Beltway bias is even evident in the article's title: "Democrats Aren't As Obsessed With Trump As You Think," which (if it were completely honest) really should have read: "Democrats Aren't As Obsessed With Trump As We Think."

Still, I shouldn't get too snarky. The article is pretty good, since Dionne does admit his own bias and correctly reports what is taking place out there rather than the conventional wisdom he's already bought into.

There's a larger point to be made, though, and that is that Democratic candidates for office in 2018 aren't obsessing about Trump for a very good reason -- they don't have to. Because their voters are already on board with being anti-Trump, and thus don't need reminding. The Resistance is real, but (like Fight Club) it doesn't need to be talked about. Enthusiasm is high. Anti-Trump feelings are high. Voters are already looking forward to sending Trump a message in November, so that box comes pre-checked for just about any Democratic candidate. Why spend a lot of time and money on advertising telling the voters what they already are feeling?

The last trope the ink-stained wretches love to fall back on is an unfair one, because the theme that "Democrats have no new ideas" never seems to be applied to the Republicans, despite their running on pretty much exactly the same platform as Ronald Reagan for decades, now. For over 30 years, the GOP has been the party of tax cuts for the rich, which will trickle down to everyone eventually. That and being anti-immigrant and anti-poor. That's about all they've got, really. What was supposed to be their signature issue this time around? Their latest "shower the rich with money" tax cut. How, exactly, is this a "new idea"? This question never seems to get asked.

But this time around, it's going to be a hard case to make on the Democratic side (even though I fully expect to see the theme in many articles between now and November). The Bernie/Hillary split within the party is being worked out in a rather organic fashion rather than continuing as a hard dividing line within the party. Bernie may not have won the battle in 2016, but his ideas are certainly winning the intraparty war, to put this another way. When Bernie Sanders ran for president, many of his ideas were disparaged (by Democrats) as being pie-in-the-sky and too bold. Incrementalism was the watchword, because you shouldn't get people's hopes up too high. This way of thinking has all but disappeared into the woods with Clinton, though.

Universal healthcare or the public option or even single-payer used to all be seen as so radical and unachievable as to be nothing short of fringe lunacy. Nowadays, though, it's tough to find a Democratic candidate that doesn't support at least one of those goals. Making public colleges tuition-free for all also used to be one of Bernie's crackpot ideas, but it is now gaining widespread acceptance as an issue that should be a core Democratic agenda item. Ditto for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. None of these would likely be so prominent had Bernie not run.

You can argue that this shift is a new thing, or merely a return to the Democratic Party's historical roots. In that Dionne article above, he quoted a J.F.K. slogan. Looking back even further, it is easy to picture F.D.R. being delighted at the prospect of these issues becoming reality as well. The Democratic Party is finally fully emerging from its 1990s "Democratic Leadership Council" pro-business detour and returning to its roots, once again championing the working class and coming up with proposals to make the majority of people's lives at least a little bit easier. Contrast all of this with the paucity of the Republican platform, and you can see the differences are stark. Anti-Trumpism is merely a foil used to showcase what could be achieved with more Democrats being elected to Congress.

But while "raising the minimum wage" is not exactly a new idea, the goal of $15-per-hour is new. Even Hillary Clinton couldn't bring herself to fully get on board this effort, less than two years ago, but more and more Democrats are supporting it. The public option or "Medicare for all" isn't new either, but it has gained newfound support rather than being ridiculed. Democrats -- for the first time since they passed it -- are actually running pro-Obamacare ads, which is a big change. Even tuition-free college is not a new idea (indeed, tuition-free state schools used to exist in many states across the country), but the Democratic Party has not gotten behind the issue in this way for a very long time. There is definitely a new enthusiasm for big ideas rather than incrementalism, and that is a big deal.

When you actually look at the races being run and the races already won, it's pretty easy to spot what Democrats are actually running on. The biggest focus so far has been on healthcare, which consistently ranks in the top three issues on voters' minds in 2018. Republicans really shot themselves in the foot with their entire "repeal-and-replace" fiasco, and the voters have not forgotten. They saw one political party determined to make life worse for tens of millions of Americans, and one political party fighting hard to keep it from happening. Healthcare is still a potent issue, because while we've come a long way, there is still a lot of progress to be made -- on premiums, on prescription drug costs, on access to insurance, on deductibles, and on some sort of public option for those who want to buy into government-run healthcare. These are the issues that have already won races in places like Virginia. Improving healthcare is a top issue with the voters, and Democrats have all sorts of ideas about how to go about doing that. Republicans, on the other hand, have nothing. This is not just the first year where Democrats are running pro-Obamacare ads, it is also the first year that GOP candidates are backing away from anti-Obamacare ads, which is a significant change.

If the pundits in D.C. really want to know what's going on out there with the Democratic Party, all they have to do is get out there and listen to what the candidates are saying. Check out who is winning primaries, and with what particular messages. Do so without preconceptions of some continuing, irreparable split within the party left over from the last presidential election. Democrats as a whole and Democratic candidates have largely moved on, even if the pundits haven't. Go out and listen to the candidates' stump speeches, and do more than just count how many times they mention Donald Trump. Pay attention to all the other things that they're saying -- because the voters already are.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “Listen To The Candidates, Not The Beltway Cocktail Party Chatter”

  1. [1] 
    Kick wrote:

    Nailed it! :)

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Unpacking this column * and placing the contents in my mental "hutch."

    All politics is interpreted locally.

    Every citizen is a local and most are getting their news primsrily from a national outfit staffed by people who live in a few key locations. NYC, DC and LA come to mind.

    It is impossible to be an expert on more than a few things.

    One size fits all if you not greatly concerned about how nicely something fits.

    If "good" politicsl choices depend on "quality" news then we" are screwed.

    That seems about right. I agree with Kick.

    * I know CW hates this turn of phrase, but i think it fits human info processing quite well.

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Comment 2 explains why Avenatti is cutting through Trump several times a week like a box cutter thru an empty box.

    The Stormy D Affair, unlike most things (say, for instance, Trump's Life Style and how it manages to stand up on two legs), is quite simple to grasp and relatable to the average American.

    Avenatti is a media savvy legal expert with a National Megaphone. In short, a politician's worst nightmare...and boffo ratings!

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:


    "see founding fathers"

    If we look to our founding fathers we see widespread disenfranchisement of women, people of non-European decent, slaves etc. No uniformity of policy among the states.

    Maybe we should see other people.

  5. [5] 
    John M wrote:

    There has been yet another school shooting. This time in Texas. Reports are 10 dead with another 10 wounded. The shooter, a 17 year old, gave himself up. A small town between Galveston and Houston. Apparently he used a 38 and a shot gun both of which belonged to his father. There was a school resource officer at the school.

  6. [6] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Re-5 non-European descent ....uuuhhh sloppy proofing.

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    no, ts is breaking up with the founding fathers. keep up don.

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    just because they lived 250 years ago and wrote a few useful legal documents does not excuse their racist sexist classist behavior :/

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kick [1] -

    Thanks for the kind words!

    TheStig [2] -

    I have no specific hatred of "unpacking." Although a friend of mine and I did have a converstaion about the phrase "thinking outside the box" recently, but I've never had a real opinion on unpacking, I think...

    TheStig [3] -

    I think, if Trump ever blows his top on Avenatti, that you have put your finger on the reason why it'll happen -- Avenatti is getting better ratings than Trump!


    AS for the rest of this thread, as Neil Sedaka put it: "breaking up is hard to do..."



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