Deja Vu for Democrats?
What if the blue wave is merely a blue ripple? What if it doesn’t even make it to shore? With the “Kavanaugh effect,” there are signs the Democratic Party should be worried about the midterms, and if we fall short, there will be a party civil war.
It all seems so familiar now. Pundits on television telling us in unison it’s a near certainty. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Hillary Clinton, and many other party luminaries and celebrities out energizing the base, even in red states. A hotly contested vacancy on the Supreme Court. Confident projections from the safe confines of the Beltway that a blue wave is coming.
That was two years ago. And it’s eerily similar to my party’s posture today.
The blue wave didn’t come then. As hard as it may be to imagine, and against all hopes, what happens if it doesn’t this year either?
Regardless of how many reputable pollsters and number crunchers project the speaker of the House’s gavel going to Nancy Pelosi and Democrats gaining seats in the Senate, perhaps even enough to gain the majority there, the party would be well-advised to guard against the last minute complacency that sunk its hopes in 2016. With less than four weeks to go until ballots are cast, there are signs that the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans has closed in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s ugly nomination fight and subsequent confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The wrenching drama of the Kavanaugh hearings injected a new sense of urgency in the left’s activist base. But it has also stirred emotions on the right, something that conservative media from Fox News to talk radio has stoked in an effort to create an alternate reality that the accusations were fabricated and a George Soros-engineered political attack, or in Donald Trump’s words, “a hoax.” Nothing could be further from the truth, but it doesn’t matter to the Republican base, which is now far more energized than these voters were only two weeks ago. New NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist polling suggests the enthusiasm gap between the parties has dropped from a 10-point Democratic advantage to a dead heat as of this week.
It’s hard to know exactly how the dynamics of Kavanaugh’s politics play out for midterm voter models, but if nothing else, the “Kavanaugh effect” of inspiring a higher GOP turnout now takes the U.S. Senate out of play as red state Democrats -- including North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Texas’ Beto O’Rourke, who were surging until the hearings -- now face uphill battles.
All of this to say that a Democratic victory in the midterms is far from a sure bet. And if Democrats falter and fail to live up to expectations for the second national election in a row, we can say goodbye to the party as we’ve known it. For decades, I have worked for my party at various levels. Among other positions, I was co-chairman of the National Finance Committee for John Kerry in 2004, was on the Obama-Biden transition team in 2008, a member of the Obama Inaugural Committee, and a Pennsylvania elector in 2012. I’ve attended every Democratic National Convention since 1976.
As Democrats, we’ve had hard-fought primary battles this year – there’s never been a time when we haven’t. And the results have cut both ways, most recently in New York where establishmentarian Andrew Cuomo defeated left-leaning TV star Cynthia Nixon while five incumbent centrist state senators lost their jobs to aggressive progressive Dems. But at the same time, I’ve never seen a period where the party’s rank-and-file has been more united, progressives and establishment folk, moderates and conservatives in service to one goal – stopping the obscene overreach of the Trump administration. That unity collapses on Nov. 6 if we do not win control of the House of Representatives, if we lose seats in the Senate, or we fall short in governor’s races.
All of that could happen. It’s conceivable that Republicans can mobilize just enough of their base to cling to a slender majority in the House. It’s conceivable, and in some scenarios even likely, that Republicans will gain a seat or two, or even three, in the U.S. Senate. We might lose high-profile governor’s races in places like Florida and Georgia, where African-American candidates are currently surging. What then?
The consequences will be dramatic – not just for the Democrats, but for the American people.
Here are five bad things worth contemplating now:
Bye, Bye, Leadership. First, the Democratic Party’s leadership will face a dramatic reckoning. Ever since Bernie Sanders fell short in 2016, with his supporters claiming the nominating process had been “rigged,” millions of members of our party have viewed Washington’s leaders with growing unease. A victory will provide a needed salve; a loss would tear open the wound beyond repair. Fairly or unfairly, every person in a leadership position in the Democratic House and Senate would feel the brunt. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, in particular, would feel the the full rebellion. The shocking primary victory of a candidate like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who toppled Rep. Joe Crowley -- long rumored to be a future House speaker -- would be the trend, not the aberration.
Not Your Father’s Democratic Party. Second, the Democratic Party would become unrecognizable. The left wing of the party will no longer be content with an uneasy alliance with experienced party regulars. The vast majority of candidates will now be talking about once fringe positions such as banning guns, abolishing ICE and huge redistributions of wealth. This will make it even harder for the party to make inroads beyond its coastal bases and give the Trump version of the Republican Party a real hold on Middle Americans wary of taking a chance on more extreme lefty Democrats.
Trump Unchained. Think Donald Trump can’t get more unbearable? Just wait until his party shocks the world again. Some of Trump’s wilder impulses have been restrained by advisers warning him that reckless actions could imperil control of Congress this November. Feeling himself politically invincible, the president will no longer listen to them. Goodbye, Jeff Sessions. Goodbye, Rod Rosenstein. Goodbye, WTO. Goodbye, United Nations. Oh, and goodbye, Bob Mueller.
Mueller’s Dud. If Democrats fall short again, Robert Mueller could produce images of Trump receiving paychecks from Vladimir Putin and Trump would still survive impeachment in Congress. There would be no meaningful investigations and oversight of Trump’s behavior by the House of Representatives, no subpoenas issued to various Trump organizations to glean more information about allegations of corruption, no oversight of Cabinet officials, an extraordinary number of whom have already been accused of graft. Trump would have a “get out of jail free” card – and he will use it.
Republicans Compete to Kiss the Ring. The dirty little secret of Washington is that most, if not all, Republicans in Congress privately think Trump is an unguided missile of nonsense with a dangerous splash of crazy. But if his party – and it’s his party now, win or lose – continues to demonstrate some magical hold on voters, Republican officeholders are going to follow his playbook without criticism or complaint. The devolution from the party of Lincoln to a cult of personality will be complete.
Ever since I became involved in party politics, I have heard one candidate or another proclaim that whatever election is next is the most important in our country’s history. I’ve probably made the proclamation myself, maybe more than once. But if that statement were ever true, it’s in 2018. The future of this country, in a very real and terrifying way, is riding on the blue wave that we can just start to see from the shore. We cannot afford for it to become a ripple.