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Democrats Don’t Need a “Core Message” in 2018

The manufactured debate over whether the party should focus on the Russia scandal or health care is obscuring a much more important debate.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Democrats, you may have heard, have a messaging problem. President Donald Trump’s poll numbers are imploding, and the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is sunk once more, yet members of the opposition are “still struggling to tell voters what their party stands for,” the Associated Press reported on Sunday. “The message is being worked on,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley told the outlet. “We’re doing everything we can to simplify it, but at the same time provide the meat behind it as well. So that’s coming together now.” The fact that the number-four Democrat in the House admitted “his party lacks a clear, core message even amid Republican disarray,” the AP claimed, “highlights the Democrats’ dilemma eight months after President Donald Trump and the GOP dominated last fall’s elections, in part, because Democrats lacked a consistent message.”

This damning report was compounded by a Washington Post-ABC News poll, released the same day, which found that just “37 percent say the party currently stands for something, while 52 percent say it mainly stands against Trump,” the Post reported. “Even among Democrats, over one-quarter say their party primarily stands in opposition to Trump rather than for their own agenda.” Some elected Democrats don’t dispute this view. “Even if this [Russia] investigation leads to a new president, it doesn’t change the fact that only four in ten Americans currently believe the Democrats are for something,” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told CBS. Buttigieg, who ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year, added, “They’ve gotta know what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”

Buttigieg is right, generally speaking, that Democrats should have a clear identity that’s independent of Trump. But Democrats don’t necessarily need it next year. Opposing the president—or simply being the opposing party—may be enough. “History generally shows that the out party in a midterm doesn’t typically need much of a message if the presidential party is unpopular,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the election analysis website Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told me. “Midterms are historically referendums on the ruling party. In other words, despite the Democrats’ internal fissures, opposition to Trump may be enough in 2018 for them to make significant gains.” As the Post’s Aaron Blake pointed out on Tuesday:

Republicans ran for years on a message of “Obama is bad” and “undo what Obama did” and it worked out pretty well for them in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Charlie Cook had this prescient quote in Rolling Stone in March 2010, when Republicans were actually in a pretty similar spot to where Democrats are right now and people were wondering what the message was:

“Does the Republican Party lack a clear leader? Absolutely. Do they lack a positive message? Of course. Do their demographics suck? Yeah,” Cook said. “But in a midterm election, none of that matters. Because midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power. And to throw one side out, you’ve got to throw the other side back in.”

This analysis won’t stop Democrats from arguing about their message, nor should it. As Blake wrote, “people within the party truly care about policy and about its direction”—and a “core message” is nothing if not a distillation of the party’s vision for the country. But that’s why the messaging question isn’t as central or critical as some are making it out to be. The most important debate among Democrats right now isn’t over how to sloganeer in 2018, but which policies to put forth.

The handwringing over the Democratic Party’s message began even before last year’s devastating loss, but has taken on added urgency as Democrats look to capitalize on Trump and his flailing party. “The Democratic Party is embroiled in a debate,” Politico reported in May, “over where they should focus their efforts to win back political power: health care or Russia.” Earlier this month, Newsweek political editor Matthew Cooper wrote that Democrats “see the Russia probes as their ticket to taking back the House in 2018,” while he cautioned that the health care fight “remains the party’s best hope.” The Hill’s Mike Lillis reported that there’s an even more fundamental debate within the party: “House Democrats are at odds over whether attacks on President Trump will prove to be a winning campaign message in 2018.”

Certainly there are Democrats who think the party has become too consumed by Trump in general, and the Russia scandal in particular. “If the question is, ‘Should they be campaigning on Russia?,’ heck no!” said Nina Turner, the new president of Our Revolution, the progressive group Sanders started after his campaign. She wants Democrats on the 2018 campaign trail to be laser-focused on “quality-of-life issues.” Buttigieg similarly told me they should push “any policy issue where we can make it clear to voters what they personally have at stake.” He added, “At the end of the day, there are a lot of people working the Russia situation. It’s not clear how much you contribute as, say, some House candidate.”

It’s also the case that the party doesn’t need to drive the issue to keep it in the news. “If the Democrats just paid attention to the economy, the press and other Republicans would do a pretty good job of skewering Donald Trump on the Russia stuff,” Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen said while hosting The Bill Press Show last Friday. “It is no longer at a point where Democrats need to bring up what’s going on with these investigations in order for them to get coverage.”

The Democratic National Committee seems to agree that the party should focus on domestic issues. From now until Election Day in 2018,” deputy communications director Sabrina Singh told me in a statement, “Democrats are focused on the issues that keep families up at night—finding a better job; achieving an education that opens doors of opportunity; access to quality and affordable health care and being able to retire with the dignity everyone deserves. Donald Trump’s numerous ties to Russia will not stop Democrats from fighting for families and improving the lives of our next generation of innovators, business owners and educators.”

The devil is in the details. Turner argues that every House candidate next year should campaign on Medicare-for-all, a single-payer health care system. “We can’t go half-measure on this,” she said. “While we’ve got the momentum, let’s go all the way—Medicare for All.” Ben Wikler, the Washington director for the progressive group MoveOn, believes that “Medicare for all, like Social Security and Medicare itself, would become one of the most popular measures in American history.” “Democrats should be fighting not just for a majority but for a mandate to enact bold policies that make people’s lives better and give them a reason to vote for Democrats in the future,” Wikler told me. “We’re not well-served if we elect a slate of Joe Liebermans who back away from progressive policies that would make people’s lives better.”

Some Democrats are more cautious, even if they don’t oppose Medicare-for-all as a policy. “With all do respect to single-payer, which may be a good idea, I have not seen a single poll that that’s the winning message in swing districts,” said Representative Jim Himes, who chairs the moderate New Democrat Coalition in the House. Ultimately, Buttigieg said, “I think every candidate’s going to have to figure this out for themselves.... I do think, politically, it will be very interesting to see whether Medicare-for-all appeals only in liberal areas or also to independents, because I think it might.”

The split on single-payer issue is largely about how soon Democrats should push the idea. “I think we do need to move towards a universal health care system. What does that look like?” said Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist who was Sanders’s national press secretary last year. “I think there’s room for debate on that. I’m not locked into one proposal right now, and I wouldn’t encourage democrats to lock themselves into one proposal.” She hopes Democrats talk about building on the success of Obamacare, reducing health insurance premiums, and bringing more competition to the individual market. She envisions a “hybrid approach,” wherein Democrats push for small changes in the short term while moving toward a bigger overhaul down the road. “I think most people would agree that single-payer health care is not coming next month,” Himes said.

Whether it’s the internal party dispute over health care or the balance between “kitchen table” concerns and Trump’s scandals, Democrats insist that they can “walk and chew gum at the same time.” In fact, this refrain has become so common, it’s comical. “You gotta walk and chew bubble gum,” Senator Bernie Sanders told The Washington Post in January. Crowley used nearly identical language in the Post last month. “Congress has to be able to walk and chew gum,” Representative Joe Kennedy told the AP in Monday’s article. “We have to be able to do both.” When it comes to Russia, Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and research at the progressive group Demos Action, told me, “Obviously we can’t ignore the fact that the evidence is getting more compelling and convincing every day that something very nefarious was going on.” It’s just no substitute for “a bold and robust economic platform that really addresses where people are in their daily lives.”

Notwithstanding the media framing of health care vs. Russia, most Democrats don’t think their party needs to pick some single issue to rally around next year. In fact, plenty have ideas for how to tie a variety of topics together into an overarching campaign theme. “Protecting and expanding our democracy is central to serving the economic needs of the people,” Draut said. Buttigieg talks about the vague idea that Democrats need to “defend and support ordinary people going about their lives.”

And most Democrats, even those hyping the Russia scandal, acknowledge that a candidate’s rhetoric must be tailored to her district.

Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who made waves last week for introducing an article of impeachment against Trump, told me he’s under no illusion that Democrats in swing districts should be campaigning on impeachment. “People need to hear from House candidates on local issues,” Sherman said, and on national issues like health care, jobs, and Wall Street. If a candidate is given 30 minutes of air time, he said, “Donald Trump’s incompetency should get at least three minutes,” but that’s about all. He noted that when he ran for Congress in 1996, two years after Newt Gingrich and the Republicans won back the House for the first time since 1953, “I mentioned ‘Contract for America,’ but I ran on the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.”

Every candidate will have her own Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and all candidates will be clean of Trump. That will be more valuable than whatever pithy message the Democratic leadership puts together.