Opinion Messaging isn’t the Democrats’ problem with the midterms. Reality is.


HR King
May 29, 2001
If you really want to be angry at Democrats this cycle, be angry at the cynical ploy to meddle in Republican primaries of behalf of the most extreme candidates, which may result in the election of a kooky, Trump-backed senator from New Hampshire.

Sign up for a weekly roundup of thought-provoking ideas and debates

But if you’re one of these Democrats who’s already complaining that the party is on the brink of disaster because it failed to find the killer message, or didn’t talk enough about the promising trends in the economy, or didn’t crow loudly about all its legislative successes, then I have to tell you: That’s just total nonsense.

No one’s more sympathetic than I am to the idea that Democrats have often lacked a compelling argument. Eons ago, I wrote an entire book on the subject. It was literally called “The Argument.”

But there are moments when the cogency of that argument matters a lot, and then there are moments when you might as well be reciting the Magna Carta backward, for all the good it will do. This is the second kind of moment.


In a presidential campaign, voters really do care about your larger vision. The most successful presidential candidates — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama — are those who embark on their campaigns with an argument so well synthesized that we can still remember it many years later. (Putting people first, compassionate conservatism, purple America.)

But midterms are different. They’re about one thing only: the status quo and whether it’s working.

If you’re the majority party in a midterm cycle, the best you can do is toss out a bunch of arguments and hope that one of them meets with something like applause. Which is exactly what Democrats did this cycle. They tried out safeguarding abortion rights, reining in corporate greed, protecting democracy. In some districts, any one of those arguments may yet be enough to stave off defeat.

But no focus-grouped slogan or silly listicle of priorities — I’m old enough to remember the awesome power of “Six for ’06” — was ever going to eclipse the voters’ daily reality. Democrats promised to make things normal again, and yet somehow, in an unfortunate convergence of malady and cure, both inflation and interest rates are rising to levels we haven’t seen since the 1980s, and gas prices remain historically high. That’s not anyone’s definition of normal.
There’s some grumbling among Washington Democrats that the party needed to address the economic situation head-on, rather than try to change the subject. Sure, I’m generally a take-it-head-on kind of guy. But what was that argument going to sound like, exactly? “Trust us, it’s not really as bad as it feels.” Or maybe: “At least you still have a job, right?”

Were the party’s endangered incumbents really supposed to brag more about their profligate legislative session? “We spent trillions of dollars on great stuff you haven’t actually noticed in your lives, even while prices were rising uncontrollably, because Bernie Sanders told us to. You’re welcome.”

There were reasons for the ominous trends, of course, that had nothing to do with Democratic policies — lingering effects of the pandemic on supply chains, the war in Ukraine and its impact on oil. But that’s always the case with economies. Those are excuses, not arguments.
Maybe most salient, even had none of these things been true, Democrats still would have been up against the central reality of modern politics: We’re always bouncing the party in charge now. If the Senate tips Republican next week, Joe Biden will become the fifth consecutive president to lose control of both chambers of Congress. The only one of those presidents who didn’t suffer that humiliation during his first two years in office was Bush, and only because the terrorist attacks of 2001 were still reverberating.

There’s a significant sliver of good news in all of this misery for Democrats, which is that it’s much easier to run for president against an obstructionist Congress of the other party. By early next year, there ought to be a serious debate inside the Democratic Party about what its argument ought to be in 2024, and whether an 81-year-old incumbent is really the best one to make it. (I think not.)
What the party shouldn’t do, though, is waste time flagellating its leadership for failing to find the magic message that would have saved the country from a Trumpian takeover. It didn’t exist.
Sometimes, reality is all the argument you get.

  • Like
Reactions: ThorneStockton

Latest posts