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Democrats play Charlie Brown to GOP’s Lucy: James Miller

Posted 7/5/17

Political upstart Jon Ossoff just lost the most expensive U.S. House race in history to local Republican Party player Karen Handel.

In the deep-red 6th District of Georgia, Democrats were hoping …

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Democrats play Charlie Brown to GOP’s Lucy: James Miller


Political upstart Jon Ossoff just lost the most expensive U.S. House race in history to local Republican Party player Karen Handel.

In the deep-red 6th District of Georgia, Democrats were hoping to turn anti-Trump unease into an embarrassing loss for the president and his party.

The seat, which fell vacant after Congressman Tom Price was confirmed as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has been in Republican control for nearly 40 years. Despite Trump winning the district last fall, Democrats saw an opportunity to test their message in a white upper-middle class enclave.

The effort fell short, with Handel taking 52 percent of the vote to Ossoff’s 48 percent. A nearly 5 percent gap was not what donors had in mind after shelling out $23 million to the Ossoff campaign.

For the price of 10 private Hillary Clinton speeches, Democrats expected more, and were right to do so. Donald Trump’s ongoing foibles in office, including a possible obstruction-of-justice charge, don’t sow hope in the well-to-do class who make up the contested Georgia suburbs.

On the trail, Handel conspicuously avoided tying herself to Trump, instead labeling her opponent a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi. She never let voters forget that Ossoff actually lived outside the district and was unable to vote for himself, painting a picture of an outside liberal invader.

The strategy worked. Ossoff, sensing his district wasn’t ready for a full-blown progressive, avoided attacking Trump directly in the weeks before Election Day. Rather, he endorsed a set of quasi-conservative policies, which, in Trump’s America, helped him stand out like a cubicle-confined middle manager in a large corporation.

“Together we are going to stand up for science,” Ossoff declared during his final rally. It’s a wonder he didn’t ride to victory vowing to reform CAFE standards.

Only in politics does a months-long, $50 million event fade from memory in a matter of hours. The political clock lurches forward toward the 2018 midterms. Ossoff is finished, but the question still lingers: Can Democrats ever beat Trump?

The fight for Georgia’s 6th is the latest in a string of stinging defeats for Democrats. Special elections in Montana, South Carolina and Kansas all turned a big “L” for the minority party. Each time the national media hyped up the race, only for Democrats to fail in gaining a foothold.

If they’re going to stand a chance at retaking a chamber in Congress next year, Democrats need a better plan, and fast. Thankfully, elections abroad give hope to Democrats at home.

The impressive showing by the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party in the recent snap election demonstrated that unabashed welfare statism has an enduring appeal in the United Kingdom. France’s dilettante-turned-president Emmanual Macron won a national election on a platform of optimism and neoliberal economics.

If you listen to any Democrat strategist, or, heck, even to Democratic voters, they’re at odds over which tact is better for American liberals. Is it time to make Bernie Sanders the lodestar of the party, and embrace more government benefits paid for by soaking the rich? Or is it time to double-down on Clintonian progressivism, rather than vacillate somewhere between being a banker lapdog and a militant socialist?

If I knew the answer, I’d sell it to the Democratic National Committee and retire a rich man. But since the power of soothsaying is beyond me, conjecture will have to do.

Let’s start with the things Democrats are good at. As the “coalition of the fringes,” to borrow blogger Steve Sailer’s phrase, they excel at fomenting grievances in sexual and racial minorities. The party is also successful at convincing working people that the government is the only thing stopping the wealthy from reimposing the 16-hour workday without weekends.

The problem is that in 2016, Donald Trump flipped the script and appropriated the Democrat playbook for himself. He instilled a sense of injustice in wide swaths of the electorate, middle, lower, even upper class, and directed it toward a nebulous political establishment that rapaciously drained the country of its finest qualities. He then promised a return to greatness by spinning a fanciful yarn about the halcyon days of America’s past that only he, a non-politician, could restore.

Through luck or wit, Trump intuited what voters craved when they craved it. Clinton was caught flat-footed, delivering bromides on tolerance and hope when people desperately wanted someone to blame for their troubles.

Fortunately for Democrats, Trump has proven the perfect foil for the resentment politics of old. Rank-and-file voters are never more fired up than when talk of impeachment is entertained. By keeping the base enraptured by the idea of forcefully removing Trump from office, Democrats need only attract the moderate middle who took a chance on the blustery billionaire.

The key may lie in practicality. At Business Insider, writer Josh Barro proposes the Democratic Party develop a “substantive agenda” and “tell people how they will make their lives better.” Doing so means a return to the party’s roots, focusing on elite economic treason.

Trump was elected as a Republican who cared about manufacturing loss and didn’t have a fetish for high-income tax cutting. So far, he’s governed as a typical Republican, albeit one who dashes off some entertaining tweets. Democrats can capitalize on this failing if they hone in on the right message that addresses the lingering anxiety still felt by many Americans.

Does that mean all politics are local? Not quite. Politics is more, in the words of Rutgers professor David Greenberg, “the art of who gets what, when and how.” In 2016, plenty of voters opted for Donald Trump’s dark version of America, a country where the average, God-fearing citizen was being outplayed by people alien to him.

That kind of political vision comes once a generation, and quickly passes. It has a unique time and place. The Democrats need to find their own vision that fits the moment.

Some mix of Bernie Sanders-style populism and a Harding-esque “return to normalcy” could be the ticket. Then again, who, speaking three years ago, could have imagined the proprietor of a luxury hotel chain would today be in charge of the country’s nuclear codes?

Democrats have a long road ahead of them. Expect the next year to be a long one for the party of Kennedy.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.