Forget Excuses. What Counts Is Winning Elections.

Posted November 7, 2018 6:48 p.m. EST
Updated November 7, 2018 6:54 p.m. EST

In the end it was only a blue ripple, and that should prompt soul-searching among Democrats — particularly as everyone looks ahead to 2020.

Don’t listen to Democrats who portray these midterms as an important triumph. In 2016 and again this year, liberals listened too much to one another and not enough to the country as a whole; if that happens again in the run-up to 2020, heaven help us all.

President Donald Trump was wildly exaggerating when he tweeted that the election was a “Big Win” for him, but he did OK by historical standards. Democrats won the House but lost seats in the Senate; in the 39 midterm elections since 1862, the president’s party had lost Senate seats 24 times and House seats 35 times.

It’s great that for the first time, at least 100 women are expected to serve in the House. But of the three highest-profile Democratic candidates who were repositories of the party’s hopes — Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum — not a single one won. Yes, the margins were narrow. But while it’s fine to make excuses, it’s better to win elections.

To actually govern, and to get their way with judicial appointments, Democrats must also control the Senate and win statewide elections in states like Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Missouri. That is possible but will require more than bravado.

Trump’s dismissal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday underscores the point. The expanded GOP presence in the Senate will make it easier for Trump to confirm a new attorney general and undermine the Robert Mueller investigation.

So what lessons can be learned? As Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns noted in The New York Times, “The candidates who delivered the House majority largely hailed from the political center, running on clean-government themes and promises of incremental improvement to the health care system rather than transformational social change.”

Every time Democrats mentioned the word “impeachment” or talked about abolishing ICE, Republicans benefited. The Democrats’ mishandling of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination was a gift to Republican candidates, for Sens. Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp all lost re-election bids after opposing Kavanaugh.

I don’t think Democrats should have voted for Kavanaugh. I do think they should have paid more attention to how their posturing played across the country. Sen. Cory Booker’s “Spartacus moment” thrilled some Democrats but hurt the party.

That’s a risk going forward: Democrats jockeying for the presidential nomination in 2020 will tug the party toward impeachment talk or a blizzard of subpoenas — in ways that may help Trump. I fear that America’s polarization will worsen in the next couple of years, with increased hate and perhaps violence, and I understand Democrats’ fury at Trump’s role in this. But a spitting rage on the left simply empowers him.

One lesson from the midterms is that a nominee like Sen. Elizabeth Warren might increase the odds of Trump’s re-election. A nominee from beyond the Beltway with experience running things, like Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, or the departing Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper, might be a better bet. Or, among senators, Sherrod Brown of Ohio or Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota might have a good shot at winning swing states.

And if, as expected, Democrats in the House pick Nancy Pelosi to be speaker, that will be a postelection gift to the Republican Party. That’s unfair but true.

Democrats should look at referendum results as a glimpse of a road map forward. Three conservative states — Utah, Nebraska and Idaho — appear to have voted to expand Medicaid. Two other conservative states, Arkansas and Missouri, raised the minimum wage. And Florida restored voting rights to most people who have completed sentences after felony convictions.

Those outcomes suggest a focus not on “resistance” as such, but on practical ways to improve lives. Swing voters agree with many progressive ideas, from jobs to health care to higher taxes on the wealthy, but Democrats have a knack for antagonizing the working class by coming off as condescending, angry elitists. Democratic leaders understand this and are saying the right things about emphasizing health care costs, infrastructure improvement and cleaning up politics. By all means, stand up to Trump when he demonizes immigrants or separates families, but pick your battles.

One problem: Many Democrats live in an urban blue bubble, without a single Trump-supporting friend. Ever since the 2016 election, a progressive wing has tarred all Trump voters as racists, idiots and bigots. Not surprisingly, it’s difficult to win votes from people you’re calling bigots.

So a plea: It’s gratifying to give heroic speeches thundering against fascism, but remember that what makes a difference in people’s lives is winning elections, passing laws and approving judges. To do that, Democrats must engage in less fist-waving and more listening.

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