What are national Democrats missing? Policy-focused, progressive candidates

What are national Democrats missing? Policy-focused, progressive candidates

After the special elections for Congress in South Carolina and Georgia last week, Democrats are 0-4. While smart people rightly point out that, despite these losses, these Democratic candidates are still over-performing Hilary Clinton in 2016 by an average of 14 points, putting up 80 House seats in play for 2018, a question remains: how can Democrats actually win?

Particularly in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding success in the recent special elections in Britain, not to mention the way Theresa May (and other European right wing candidates) have dramatically flopped since Trump’s election, one might reasonably wonder why at least one of these special elections in the U.S. did not break for Democrats. While it’s impossible to offer a single explanation, it’s quite remarkable that none of the candidates in these races ever quite embraced the Bernie Sanders strategy. At the very least it would have been a worthy experiment and my hunch is it would have served them well.

Instead of truly embracing full-throated, Sanders-style populism that called for tuition-free college, single-payer health care, and taxes on the wealthy, Democrats fielded:

  • Archie Parnell in the South Carolina 5th who was a former Goldman Sachs banker, bragged about working for a giant corporation, and knowing a lot about “international trade”;
  • John Ossoff, another businessman, in the Georgia 6th who wanted to “cut wasteful spending,” “fix Obamacare,” and studiously avoided anything that blew a Bernie dog whistle;
  • James Thompson, a lawyer in the Kansas 4th, who mostly seemed to avoid any serious discussion of policy and mostly wanted to talk about “protecting jobs” and his military experience
  • Rob Quist, a country music singer in North Dakota who, although endorsed by Sanders, talked about capping student loan interest rates (not tuition free college), defending the ACA (not single payer), and made vague statements about investing in infrastructure.

While it’s certainly great that these candidates out-performed Clinton in red districts, one has to wonder if that has to do more with changes in the electorate itself, rather than the campaigns. It remains to be seen what a Democrat can do in a general election by tackling economic inequality head-on, naming the names of the wealthy individuals and big corporations exploiting the American people, and proposing a new set of broad, social guarantees. It doesn’t have to be just single payer or tuition-free college; but they do need to demonstrate a willingness to renegotiate the fundamentals of the American social compact—not just tinker around the edges.

Maine gubernatorial and congressional hopefuls should take note: one cannot substitute “outsider” career credentials for a bold policy vision. Clearly, owning a business, serving in the military, or even being a celebrity country music singer simply does not adequately communicate to the public where one stands on the big issues of our time. Understandably, the public’s desire for an “outsider” has less to do with one’s biography, and much more to do with how one plans to relate to the economic and political establishment.

Further, particularly in the southern, “sun belt” races, it’s particularly disappointing to see how little of the top-line messages of the candidates centered on racial justice. Particularly in Georgia, where one would think that the coalition of college-educated, suburban white voters and African Americans would have been able to put Ossoff over the top, I found little in his message that seemed particularly exciting to communities of color. In that way, this all-white field of candidates avoided not just the Sanders play, but the Obama strategy as well. Although economic populism and an explicit commitment to racial justice often get portrayed (understandably) as in tension with each other, their common denominator is political courage. Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that candidates afraid to adopt one would also shy away from the other.

We certainly must approach campaign strategy with humility, and anyone who claims to know the one-true-recipe to win is selling snake oil. At the same time, it seems clear that Democrats simply are not experimenting with the full range of their strategic options: fielding four white men with no political experience, running on milque-toast messages, more interested in their biographies than a vision. Maybe different approaches also would not have worked, but at least we could learn from those experiences. At the very least, the conventional, timid wisdom that guided these campaigns does not deserve the dominant place it occupies in Democratic politics.

Here’s my message to all the candidates thinking about running for Maine Governor: follow in these candidates’ footsteps at your own peril; the first person to embrace this kind of strategy will likely win the primary.

About author

Ben Chin
Ben Chin 8 posts

Ben Chin is the political engagement director for the Maine People's Alliance.

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