Must Democrats Have a Unified Message?
So claims a NYT story. But the party generally fares better by allowing differing views.
A recent New York Times article reports that House Democrats “are discarding the lessons of successful midterms past and pressing only a bare-bones national agenda, leaving it to candidates to tailor their own messages to their districts.” The story describes this strategy as “risky”:
… the primary season drawing to a close has made the search for a unifying message that much more difficult, elevating self-described democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan to argue policy with a Trump-voting populist like Richard Ojeda in West Virginia and a centrist like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania.
This article was published as news, not under Opinions. Yet underlying it is a theory — that the key to a successful campaign is a “unifying message” that ties together a party’s candidates throughout the nation — that seems anything but factual.
After describing some of the diverse group of candidates running under the Democratic banner—and their hugely diverse districts—ranging from districts conquered by Trump to others where Republicans don’t contest the election—the Times story makes the following assertion:
For at least the past 20 years, whenever a party has won control of the House, it has done so with some kind of unifying message or pitch. In 1994, Republicans ran and won on their “Contract With America,” a 10-point legislative plan. In 2006, Democrats flipped the House with a legislative platform they called “Six for ’06.”
In response, New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore questions the critical role played by the Contract for America or Six for ’06, noting that he actually wrote about the 2006 election and can’t remember a thing about Six for ’06. It seems likely that the Bush administration’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina and the increasing Iraq quagmire played far bigger roles in Democratic success.
In 2010 and 2014, when Republicans gained seats, they did so without a national agenda. This leaves the Contract with America as the sole likely politically effective national agenda. Even here, other likely contributing factors, such as the historical pattern that the president’s party loses seats in the first midterm election, probably played a larger role.
The Times article goes on to discuss four Democratic candidates. The first, Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee, won the Minnesota Democratic primary and seems to be a shoe-in for the general election given that 135,318 votes were cast in the Democratic primary, compared to 15,367 in the Republican. As with the previously-mentioned Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, their real challenge was winning the Democratic primary. By the same token, however, the election of al three adds nothing to the Democratic numbers in the House.
The other three candidates they discuss are in a very different position. They are attempting to win seats from Republicans.
The first, Colin Allred, a former professional football player and Obama administration official, aims to capture a Dallas district that was safely Republican for years. No Democrat ran in the last election and it was narrowly won by Hillary Clinton.
In southern New Mexico, Xochitl Torres Small is emphasizing the protection of government lands, specifically the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. The district has long been in Republican hands, but turnout in the two parties’ primaries was about the same.
In Maine, Jared Golden is emphasizing “New Deal” issues, such as protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Then there’s Democrat Richard Ojeda, the “Trump-voting populist,” running for Congress in West Virginia. An earlier Times article was titled, Can a Pro-Coal Democrat in West Virginia Carve a Path for His Party? Thus, Ojeda is both “pro-coal” and a Trump voter in 2016. To paraphrase the accusation common in Republican circles, does that make him a “Dino” (Democrat in name only)?
In addition, he was a strong supporter for teachers in their statewide strike to get a raise and criticizes coal companies for what they have done to the state’s environment. These are all positions that would get him thrown out of the Republican Party.
Is allowing candidates to develop their own issues good politics? Given the huge variety of candidates and districts, it is probably the best strategy available in an off-year election.
There is also a lesson there for Milwaukee Democrats. Too often they find disagreement disagreeable and plot to bump each other off. At times they seem to emulate the style of a Mafia family.
Jeff Plale was a conservative Democratic state senator who represented the 7th district covering the East Side, Bay View, and four suburbs, St. Francis, Cudahy, Oak Creek, and South Milwaukee. He was clearly more conservative than his average Milwaukee voter, although in sync with the sentiment in the suburban parts of his district. In the 2010 Democratic primary there was a successful campaign to defeat him.
The general election that followed was a Democratic disaster. Scott Walker was elected governor and Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature. Is there a connection? One connection is that resources used to defeat a fellow Democrat were not available in the general election. More harmful in the long run, I think, was the message: the Democratic Party had no room for people who thought like Plale.
Of course, 2010 was also a terrible year for Democrats nationally, not just Wisconsin. Partly the results reflected the normal losses for presidential parties in off-year elections. Also, it is worth remembering that the economy was in bad shape, as shown by the number of jobs in Wisconsin and the US.
At the time of the 2010 election, jobs had just started to grow, but the growth was weak. Obama was president and Doyle was governor so Democrats shouldered the blame for the slow recovery.
In addition, the unemployment rate, both nationally and in the state, had peaked a few months before the election, as shown below. Although unemployment had started to decline, it faced a long recovery.
Since then, Milwaukee Democrats have continued to try to decapitate each other’s candidacies. First, there was the effort by Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson (who won office defeating Plale) to deny a second term to Chris Abele for his various heresies, including being too cozy with some Republicans. More recently Abele seems to have decided to play the same game, going after Democrats who are not loyal enough to him.
Learning to live with a variety of strategies aimed at the unique needs of different districts seems to me a healthy approach for the Democratic Party. If the byproduct is a willingness to accept that Democrats can have a variety of views and still be Democrats, so much the better for our society.