Early Returns

Democrats Should Stress About 2019, Not 2018

Campaigning is easy when you are the out-party. Governing is hard. Plus, your morning links.

Planning for power.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan

What can Democrats do to improve their chances in 2018 and 2020? Lee Drutman's piece on the topic is worth a look, but I'm afraid I have a less exciting answer: For the most part, very little.

Oh, out-parties can certainly squander opportunities -- that's the story of Tea Party candidates such as Christine O'Donnell and Todd Akin who lost Senate elections Republicans had very good chances to win. That may be what happens with Roy Moore in Alabama.

In that race, Democrats have been competent -- nothing more. They found a candidate, Doug Jones, who isn't a terrible fit, and then they did little more than hope that things broke their way. So out-parties need to do the basics, and the better they do the basics the better they'll be able to take advantage of opportunities. But almost all of it, beyond "find an adequate candidate to run in as many contests as possible," is pretty marginal. 

What really matters, like it or not, is how the in-party does, and especially how the president is perceived to be doing. That's not really surprising if you think it through a bit. Most people who pay close attention to politics are extremely partisan: They're going to vote for their party almost no matter what. But then there's another group who pay less attention. Some of them are partisans, but only show up occasionally, and what gets them to the polls is usually unhappiness with the other party -- something a lot more likely to be activated when the other party is in office. And some are less attached to either party, but just float back and forth depending on whether times (as they perceive them) are good or not. In other words, both groups are going to reward or punish incumbents and barely notice what the other party is saying.

So while, again, Democrats should certainly do what they can -- sometimes helping a little bit on the margins matters a lot! -- the results of the 2018 and 2020 elections are largely out of their control. 

What is within their control, however, is 2019 and 2021. That is, Democrats should use this time less to figure out what they're going to say about the economy, health care, climate, and everything else during elections and more about what they would do about those things if they win. The more they work out their collective policy preferences -- and perhaps even more important, their priorities -- the better they'll be able to use their majorities if they have them. 

In fact, it's a bit more complicated than that. Whatever policies and priorities they work out will wind up being what they talk about during their campaigns. A close relationship between what a party promises and what it actually wants to do turns out to be helpful in getting things done after the election, because politicians generally want to keep their promises. But that means that one check on whatever it is they want to do will be (and should be) what they feel comfortable promising. The idea, still, is that the party's substantive agenda should usually come first, even if it is modified by electoral considerations.

One more thing: Working out the party's policy preferences and priorities can be a messy business, full of conflict and tough bargaining, some of which will seem very visible and lead to a lot of talk from pundits about disarray that will badly cost the party in November. Focus: Remember that most voters, especially swing voters and those who are highly partisan but only occasionally show up, will be paying far more attention to college football and the new Star Wars movie and getting the kids to soccer practice on time and catching the bus from one job to the next to pay any attention to almost any internal party conflict. We had a wonderful demonstration of that in the 2017 elections this month, when a controversy about the 2016 presidential nomination flared up a week before the election but evidently cost Democrats nothing in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere. 

 

1. Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless at the Monkey Cage on the demise of local news and other media problems. Underrated as a threat to U.S. democracy, and unlike some of the other threats it's very hard to see any solution. 

2. Dan Drezner on Trump's Asia trip

3. Susan Glasser on Trump and North Korea

4. Expect mistakes in the tax bill: Patricia Cohen reports in the New York Times on what happens when bills get rushed through Congress.

5. Over at Slate, Isaac Chotiner interviews Ta-Nehisi Coates.

6. And my View colleague Francis Wilkinson on the possibility that 2018 will be another Year of the Women in U.S. politics. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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