Democrats Can't Trash-Talk Their Way to Victory
There has been much discussion of what form Democratic “resistance” to Donald Trump’s presidency should take. Tuesday provided the definitive answer: The most effective resistance is winning elections.
Sure, there are other powerful ways to be politically engaged, from marching to lobbying. But “resistance” itself is not a goal. Winning a House majority and as many state contests as possible in 2018 is the goal.
The victories in Virginia were made possible in part by former Representative Tom Perriello, who lost the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in June to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. In the matrix of the Democratic Party circa 2017, Perriello played progressive Bernie to Northam’s middle-of-the-road Hillary. But Perriello backed Northam energetically in his winning race against Republican Ed Gillespie. There were no specious claims of the Democratic establishment “rigging” the Virginia primary election against the left.
Of such sour grapes is Trump wine made. Since the president’s goal is to discredit truth and destroy the power of our political system to mediate debates over it, the word “rigged” is especially powerful in the Trump lexicon. When everything is dishonest, everything rigged, you can hardly blame a guy for lying and cheating, can you?
For some reason the very smart and capable Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, tossed the flailing Trump a life preserver last week. Warren told CNN anchor Jake Tapper that she agreed that the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination fight was “rigged” for Hillary Clinton. A Warren spokeswoman subsequently clarified that Warren meant only that the Democratic National Committee, not the nominating primaries and caucuses, had been tilted in Clinton’s favor.
As the 2016 election approached, the DNC, poorly led and financially anemic, was dependent on Clinton’s fundraising. The Clinton campaign naturally exploited this dependency.
But the DNC was composed of professional Democrats who had every reason to fear placing the party’s future in the hands of a temporary Democrat with unknown prospects, Bernie Sanders. They likely would’ve favored Clinton’s candidacy regardless – just as President Barack Obama and nearly every Democratic member of Congress did. In the end, Democratic voters ratified the preference of Democratic elites, though by nothing close to the same overwhelming margin.
The distinction between “rigging” a weak and marginal party bureaucracy and rigging the actual nomination contests was meaningless to Trump, who tweeted that Warren – aka “Pocahontas” -- had confirmed that the Democratic primaries were a scam. Trump called out his own Justice Department to investigate his giddy charge.
This may, in some narrow sense, boost Warren’s standing among the more conspiracy-minded and politically muddled elements of the Democratic Party. But it undermines the resistance -- that larger cause of repudiating Trumpism and replacing it with something more decent and democratic (not to mention competent).
That will require winning elections, as the party did on Tuesday. Winning, in turn, will require prominent leaders such as Warren avoiding the kind of trash talk that endorses, implicitly or explicitly, Trump’s view of American politics as a dogfight to become king of the garbage dump. You can legitimately criticize the party, or pretty much anything in American politics, without sounding like Trump.
Liberals are, in one sense, lucky. Trump has so far failed to mount the populist policy challenge they feared. He continues to hitch racial, sexual, cultural and class resentments to the same pro-rich-guy Republican agenda that, however disingenuously marketed, still fails to generate popular support.
Democrats are winning many of the big policy fights, despite minority status in Washington. On Tuesday, they won a big political victory. A bigger one in 2018 is eminently possible.
But the voters who powered Democratic victories didn’t turn out because they’re convinced that their political culture and republican system are irredeemable garbage. They came out to vote for pretty much the opposite reason: They want to take the trash out.
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