This is the fifth and final installment of a series. In Part One I discussed how a candidate must run for something, not merely against Donald Trump. In Part Two I talked about how voters don't fall neatly onto a left-right spectrum, meaning that trying to "claim the center" is a mistake. In Part Three I talked about how, contrary to popular belief, a clear majority of the electorate identifies as economically liberal. In Part Four I discussed how even voters in a Republican-leaning district hunger for a candidate who will advocate for a populist economic agenda. Today I talk about what that agenda might look like.
For nearly 40 years, Democratic politicians have been on the defensive. They have been ashamed and they have been afraid.
Because of their fear -- because they are afraid that they will be attacked by Republicans as weak or soft for giving voice to these principles -- Democratic politicians have continually offered the most compromised campaign messages.
These should not be controversial positions. There is nothing inherently partisan about a single one of them. They all address the basics of a functioning society that no one can argue in good faith are not desirable ends. If you need to put numbers to it, yes, I assure you that all of those assertions are favored by an overwhelming majority of American voters. Yet, at present, we have one political party whose entire agenda seems to be at odds with these principles and another which seems too cowardly to give a full-throated endorsement to them.
This is madness. It is long past time that Democrats advocate, in the plainest and most straightforward way possible, for these principles. It is long past time for them to call out Republicans for standing against them. It is by doing this -- by offering a basic, clear-eyed and clearly-stated appeal to the interests of working people and to those in need -- that a Democrat can beat any Republican in any district, no matter how gerrymandered it is.
I believe that a candidate doing so should focus on four broad issues and their underlying values, from which all substantive policy positions should flow:
Putting America to Work
The Dow Jones may climb and the unemployment numbers may be low, but working people know that the system is rigged, with productivity going up but people earning less and retirement becoming a fading dream for far too many. As real wages for real work are stagnant or declining, the benefits of our economy are being gobbled up by a smaller and smaller number of people who grow richer and richer by the day. It's unsustainable. It's unfair. It's bad for America.
We must make our economy work for everyone, not just for the rich. We should raise the minimum wage. We must ensure that workers are given sick leave, family leave and medical leave. We must prevent companies from misclassifying employees to rob them of benefits and protections they deserve. We must provide protections for workers whose livelihoods are threatened by outsourcing, deindustrialization and automation and, if such protections prove inefficient, we must help retrain workers for in-demand occupations, especially occupations in emerging industries in the advanced energy sector. We must create disincentives for businesses to eliminate jobs and incentivize them to put workers first.
America has always been at its best when the lives of its workers have been at their best. Making workers' lives better should be our top priority.
Years of tax cuts, service cuts and neglect have led to a degradation of our highways, railways, airports, bridges, tunnels, waterworks, sewers, the energy grid, our schools and our hospitals. The very bones of America are cracking and calcifying and they require a heavy investment in order to bring them back to strength.
An infrastructure plan -- a real infrastructure plan that puts Americans to work, not some scam designed to put money in the pockets of developers, banks and middlemen -- is badly needed. Infrastructure projects should be dictated by need, not by their ability to turn a profit. They should support good jobs that provide fair wages and benefits while discouraging anti-labor practices. They should likewise be sustainable, acknowledging that once you build something you must likewise maintain it and that you must train and retain workers to do so.
Infrastructure should be understood as an investment, not a one-time expense. It is, quite literally, the foundation upon which America is built.
Keeping America Healthy
America is the only major country on Earth that allows health insurance executives, pharmaceutical companies and their stockholders to get rich while tens of millions of people suffer because they can't get basic health care. This is obscene and immoral. Every man, woman and child in our country should be able to access the health care they need when they need it, regardless of their income.
This is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. Every moment an American is worrying about the health of their family is a moment not spent making their lives and the lives of their families better. Every dollar spent on medical costs is a dollar not being spent on something else. Even those with health insurance already are paying costs beyond their premiums in terms of limited opportunities and the inability to change careers, start businesses or stay home to take care of their families because they fear losing employer-based coverage. Guaranteed health care for all Americans would eliminate a tremendous obstacle to their productivity, their innovation and their happiness.
By making health care a for-profit product available only to those with the ability to pay, we are in a self-inflicted health care crisis in this country. The only solution to it is the establishment of a single-payer national health care program. America should have done this decades ago. We can and should do it now.
Putting People Before Wall Street
Banks and corporations think that they run this country. They think it because our leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, have let them think it by taking their campaign funds and working hard to protect their interests at the expense of the American people. That they'd ever do this is unacceptable. That they doubled and tripled down on it after Wall Street and big business wrecked the world economy and caused the Great Recession from which many people are still trying to recover, is unconscionable.
In everything we do as a country, we must remember that we are a nation of people, not a nation of banks and corporations. Any policy we pursue, be it related to jobs, infrastructure, health care, taxes, the environment, trade, defense and everything else, should serve the interests of the people, not Wall Street. Ordinary Americans, not the wealthy. People who work, not people who get rich off the work of others.
There is no limit to the number of issues on which a politician or a candidate must take a position. And, of course, any candidate will have issues he or she will prefer to emphasize based on their personal convictions and their comfort with the substance of it all. In no way would I suggest that a candidate shy away from weighing in on any matter they think is important or addressing any matter with which they are presented during the course of a campaign. Never run from a fight, ever.
As I said at the outset of this series, however, a candidate must run for something. To do so, he or she must stand for something. This is true in any election, but it is especially true in an election in a district like OH-12, where a Democratic candidate must truly make voters stand up and take notice. A district in which he or she must not only motivate the Democratic base, but also (a) persuade voters who have voted Republican of late but who do not blindly and unthinkingly identify themselves as Republican; and (b) must awaken the masses of people in OH-12 who do not vote often and inspire them to go to the polls.
If that candidate wants to win OH-12, he or she will not merely run against Donald Trump. He or she will not follow the old, misguided conventional wisdom about "claiming the center. He or she will not shy away from policies that are economically liberal. He or she will, in fact, advance a populist economic agenda for which voters hunger. Finally, he or she will hammer home the themes and positions I mentioned above, over and over again.
As I argued in October, yes a Democratic candidate can win Ohio's Twelfth district. This is how to do it.
This is the fourth installment of a series. In Part One I discussed how a candidate must run for something, not merely against Donald Trump. In Part Two I talked about how voters don't fall neatly onto a left-right spectrum, meaning that trying to "claim the center" is a mistake. In Part Three I talked about how, contrary to popular belief, a clear majority of the electorate identifies as economically liberal. Today I talk about how even voters in a Republican-leaning district hunger for a candidate who will advocate for a populist economic agenda.
If OH-12 is so damned conservative, why is Pat Tiberi quitting?
Tiberi was a junior congressman in a somewhat different 12th District before it was gerrymandered to its current configuration. Both Tiberi's seniority and the Republicans' safety in OH-12 was better-established by 2009, but that's when Obama took office, providing a sure-thing veto over the boldest aspects of the Republican agenda. Finally, in early 2017, Tiberi (a) was firmly established as an important lieutenant to House Speaker Paul Ryan; (b) had a district which was seemingly tailor made for his electoral safety; and (c) had a Republican president in the White House, ensuring that his legislative agenda would be carried out.
Nine months later, he announced he was quitting, reportedly disillusioned with the job, having passed no substantive laws despite his party controlling the government completely.
Tiberi hasn't talked about his decision to quit in any detail, but it's not hard to guess that he was feeling the heat. The ACA repeal he was supposed to quarterback was a disaster. The currently pending tax plan may pass -- I suspect it will -- but it's wildly unpopular with almost every constituency outside of the super rich and the donor class. Thanks to the bills he has championed and his unwillingness to defend his positions to his constituents, Tiberi has been beaten up from every direction in his own, once-loyal district. I suspect he knows that it would've been tough to run on that record in 2018, even in his safe district. He is exhausted, he has never had a tough election, I suspect he's a little scared, and he got out while the getting was good.
In theory, none of this should be happening. I strongly suspect that the reason it is happening is because, in practice, there is no real constituency for Tiberi's agenda or the agenda of congressional Republicans and once voters finally get a chance to see it up close, they'll beat the hell out of the people who advocate for it.
People like Pat Tiberi personally. He seems like a nice guy. They may identify with the Republican party for various reasons, personal and historical. They may, in the abstract, like to hear talk about about fiscal responsibility and ending government waste. There is no majority, however, that supports cutting taxes for the wealthy, slashing government programs and services which benefit the poor and middle class and claiming, contrary to nearly 40 years of objective evidence, that doing so will make life better for everyone. Once that finally became a possibility in January 2017, the nation -- and OH-12 -- got angry.
It's not just lefties like me who find a soak-the-poor-to-help-the-rich agenda repugnant. Most people who vote Republican do too. Indeed, just last year they nominated and elected a man president who they believed would fight that agenda. His name was Donald Trump.
Given how strongly Trump has gotten behind the agenda of Congressional Republicans in 2017, it's easy to forget it, but in 2015 and 2016 Trump ran against the current Republican economic orthodoxy. He ran against a bunch of Pat Tiberi types in the Republican primary and cleaned their clocks. Guys like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who share Tiberi's Congressional agenda. Guys like Bobby Jindal, who actually implemented the conservative economic agenda as governor of Louisiana, which led to fiscal and civic ruin. Candidate Trump, at one time or another, opposed nearly every plank in the current Republican economic agenda. He gained a strong and fervent following in doing so.
This didn't happen because he's charming -- Trump is repugnant in every conceivable way -- but because America has no interest in the agenda of congressional Republicans. Because he delivered a populist economic message about rebuilding and investing in America and in aiding the middle and lower classes who have taken it on the chin for a good thirty or forty years. One could argue that no one has spoken so directly and so effectively to the poor, the middle class and those who have been left behind by the modern economy in 50 or maybe even 80 years.
Now, to be sure, I don't think Trump believed that message himself. He cares nothing about anyone but Donald Trump. I don't believe he either wants to or that he is able to deliver on that message. His first year in office has shown that to him those were just words and that all he really cares about is looking good and getting "wins" in whatever way he can. But that populist message is what he ran and and it is what voters responded to. It's understandable that they did.
Outside of conservative think tanks, Wall Street investment banks, corporate C-suites, and a narrow class of ultra-wealthy people and political donors, there is no popular support in this country for slashing the taxes of millionaires and taking services away from the poor and middle class. None. People don't want it. When they saw it in the from of the AHCA, they recoiled. When they saw it in the form of the Republican tax plan they recoiled almost as strongly, to the point where some congressmen have been forced to explain that they're pushing this agenda for the sake of the donor class, not their constituents.
Americans do not want to giveaways to the wealthy, they want investments in the country and in its people. They know that government is often inefficient and wasteful, but they do not consider it their mortal enemy and do not want representatives who have no ideas apart from starving it and the people it serves. They heard Donald Trump say that he'd protect Medicare and Social Security and that he'd make sure they got good health care. They heard him say that he'd rebuild America's infrastructure and put people back to work. They believed him and supported him as a result.
Donald Trump gave lip service to helping ordinary Americans, but has no idea how to make that happen. Pat Tiberi, the rest of the Republicans in Congress and, almost certainly, the Republicans who run to fill Pat Tiberi's seat next year, don't give a lick about these things. They don't have a single policy proposal or talking point that even hints at helping ordinary Americans and there is nothing in their agenda that suggests that they'll try.
But people hunger for it. Not just liberals in Democratic neighborhoods, but people in Mansfield, Johnstown and Zanesville. Working people and farmers in Morrow County, Licking County and Muskingum County who once had stable employment or government support but don't any longer because Pat Tiberi and his buddies decided that millionaires needed more help than they did. People who believed Trump when he said that he'd help them. People who, for various reasons, voted Republican before but who have learned in the past year that Republicans are hostile to their interests.
This is not mere rhetoric. Data is being gathered that reflects this hunger for someone -- anyone -- to deliver on the promises Donald Trump falsely made.
Earlier this month pollsters Stan Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz wrote a memo, based on polling data, concluding that successful candidates in 2018 and beyond "must learn how to speak a populist tongue that is in sync with real advocacy for a clear agenda, putting public needs above corporate profits." They said that voters are in search of a "clear, populist platform" in which candidates position themselves as credible opponents to the far-right agendas of congressional Republicans and President Trump. They found that voters want someone to show that they are not doing the bidding of lobbyists and corporate insiders. That they want representatives who "know what it's like to live a day in [their] shoes" and that they are willing to fight "for the right kind of change."
Donald Trump waved at this sort of message disingenuously and actually received a great deal of support as a result. Other Republicans have never offered this message and Pat Tiberi's would-be Republican replacements in OH-12 will almost certainly not offer it next year. It's a message that, once upon a time, Democrats offered but which they have neglected for over 25 years because they have been afraid of being painted as fiscally irresponsible or because they have come to enjoy the attention they have received from Wall Street, the tech sector and other moneyed constituencies.
It's a message that may alienate some CEOs and bank presidents in New Albany and Dublin, but which will resonate strongly with the masses of people in OH-12 who do not support Republicans' full frontal assault on Medicare, Medicaid and other public programs aimed at helping the poor and the middle class in order to give those CEOs and bank presidents tax cuts. It's also a message that, per Greenberg and Zdunkewicz, will likely motivate those who do not typically turn out for midterm elections to make a point to do so, which will undoubtedly favor the candidate giving voice to that message.
It's a message a Democrat who believes in such things can and should run with in OH-12 next year. It's one that can, in a wave election, put that candidate over the top, even in a district Pat Tiberi won with 66% of the vote a year ago.
In our next installment I'll walk through various policy positions to demonstrate just how easy it can be for a candidate to run on populist, economically liberal positions in a way that appeals to voters in even conservative districts like OH-12.
This is the third installment of a series. In Part One I discussed how a candidate must run for something, not merely against Donald Trump. In Part Two I talked about how voters don't fall neatly onto a left-right spectrum, meaning that trying to "claim the center" is a mistake. In this installment I talk about where, if not the center, a Democratic candidate wishing to win Ohio's 12th Congressional district should go.
In the last installment I talked about how voters' position on the political spectrum varies by issue. Rather than be uniformly conservative or uniformly liberal, people tend to have preferences which defy a clean left-right categorization and which render the idea of a candidate trying to split the difference between the left and the right ineffectual.
This is not to say, however, that there are not clear, predictable patterns of where people fall on the issues. It merely means that you have to look at more than just the standard old left-right ideological dimension and look past how people, broadly speaking define themselves politically.
In the wake of the 2016 election, a lot of people have taken a look at voters, trying to break down their preferences across multiple dimensions. One study that has gotten a lot of play is by political scientist Lee Drutman. His study looked at 12 issue dimensions, ranging from the economy to faith in government to moral issues to racial issues to foreign policy and a host of others. Drutman's findings on all of those things are interesting, but we need not concern ourselves with a dozen varying issues at the moment. There was, however, a broad takeaway that Democratic candidates -- especially ones in Republican-leaning districts -- should take to heart:
Nearly three-quarters of the electorate is economically liberal.
Yes, in the year that Donald Trump won the presidency and Republicans retained their hold on Congress, 73.5% of all voters espoused broadly liberal views on economic policy, which include protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, seeing to it that Americans have access to quality health care and addressing things like the repair and replacement of our nation's infrastructure. They're likewise, quite surprisingly, happy to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to accomplish these goals. Meanwhile, only 26.5% of voters identified as economic conservatives.
If three-quarters of voters identify as economically liberal, how did Trump win? In two ways, really. He (a) delivered a shockingly popular anti-immigration, socially conservative message while; (b) espousing some markedly liberal economic views.
Item (a) tapped into the other large political divide Drutman identified apart from the economic divide: social conservatives -- including those who responded favorably to Trump's anti-immigration messaging -- totaled 51.6% of the electorate while those identifying as social liberals totaled 48.4%. Trump galvanized the former group with a nakedly nativist and at times xenophobic platform that either appealed to their prejudices or exploited their fears. He married this message -- though cynically and disingenuously -- to economic messages, saying, explicitly or implicitly, that by keeping immigrants out he'd save jobs and ensure that government benefits went to Americans, not foreigners. Included in this appeal were promises of restoring jobs and reviving industries thought lost and committing America to big public works projects, the sorts of which unreconstructed New Deal liberals once promised.
Those socially conservative attitudes exploited by Trump aren't going away. There has always been and will remains a subset of voter who will, above all else, vote their values or their prejudices first and foremost. An appeal to these voters alone, however, has rarely if ever been sufficient for a candidate to carry the day. It was made possible last year, though, by the sheer shamelessness of Trump's appeals to prejudice and bigotry AND his willingness to evoke economically liberal talking points and hint at economically liberal programs which resonated particularly loudly in blue collar areas in the Midwest.
The circumstances which allowed Trump to thread that needle -- mobilizing social conservatives while bringing along just enough economic liberals to carry the day -- will not exist in OH-12 in 2018. This is partially because Trump's anti-immigrant, socially conservative appeals did not, on balance, motivate OH-12 voters nearly as much it motivated voters elsewhere (remember, Trump performed worse in OH-12 than Republicans usually do). This is mostly due, however, to Trump's own doing and the doing of Congressional Republicans, who are in the process of alienating huge swaths of the electorate with policies that are utterly hostile to their interests.
Republicans are now committed to a massively unpopular fiscal and economic agenda which no one, apart from the wealthy donor class, much cares for. They attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and failed miserably due to a public uproar that took them completely off guard. They are now in the process of trying to pass a tax bill that benefits only the very wealthy and promises to, at best, do nothing for the middle class and the poor but which will likely lead to future cuts in benefits and services upon which they rely. These policies, if enacted, will result in a radical reduction in their own voters’ standard of living to the benefit of a tiny, elite class of wealthy donors and corporations.
This is not just me editorializing, however. It's the sentiment currently held by the voters themselves, including large numbers of Republican voters. And it's a sentiment that is intensifying by the day.
One poll released in the past week shows that only 16 percent of Americans believe the tax plan will lower their taxes, while 59 percent say the plan will favor the wealthy over the middle class. Another found that 78 percent of Americans — including roughly 70 percent of Republicans — don’t believe that a corporate tax cuts will result in any benefit to them. These results do not yet capture sentiment in response to yesterday's CBO analysis which shows that the tax bill, as currently constructed, will require $25 billion in cuts to Medicare next year alone. When that sentiment is captured rest assured that displeasure with the Republican agenda will be even greater. As a result of all of this, Republicans are faring horrendously in the polls. So bad, in fact, that it appears as though an unprecedented anti-Republican wave is forming.
To win OH-12 in 2018, a Democrat must be positioned to ride that wave. To be positioned to ride that wave, he or she must understand the manner in which that wave is breaking. Economically speaking it's breaking left, not right. The wave favors someone willing to take a strong stance in opposition to the current Republican agenda and a strong stance in favor of liberal economic policies which remain massively popular. It takes someone willing to buck the old conventional wisdom about left-center-right politics and to eschew decades of punditry which suggests that a Democrat must track toward the center or espouse economically conservative sentiments in order to appeal to the broader electorate.
To win in OH-12, a Democrat must seek to polarize the electorate around issues of economics in the same way Trump polarized the electorate on social issues in 2016. Rather than employ bigotry to frighten them with the specter of immigrants taking their jobs, a Democrat must merely note, in plain terms, that Republicans are hellbent on taking their prosperity and handing it over to wealthy donors and corporate interests. Such a message, by the way, has the benefit of being true and is something voters already overwhelmingly understand.
Then, a Democrat who wishes to win OH-12 must argue, forcefully, that he or she will not allow that to happen and must articulate a better way to approach things.
In the coming installments, I'll talk about how best to articulate this message.
In my first installment in this series, I explained how a candidate must run for something, not against something and, as such, a candidate wishing to win OH-12 must not turn his or her campaign into a referendum on Donald Trump.
This does not mean, however, that one should worry about upsetting Trump supporters or that one should strive to carve out some sort of middle ground in the name of a centrist campaign that seeks not to offend Republicans in a Republican-leaning district. It certainly does not mean taking for granted those voters who comprise a Democrat's motivated liberal and progressive base while pivoting to the center in an effort to woo moderates and conservatives. Indeed, to the extent anyone thinks that's a good idea, they think so because they're trapped in a political mindset addled by old, mistaken assumptions about the ideological nature of most voters.
There's a conventional political wisdom that holds that the electorate is divided evenly, between staunch liberals and staunch conservatives, with a mass of moderate swing voters in the middle. Based on that, there's a belief that the more a candidate can move his or her platform in the direction of his opposition without alienating his or her core base of support, the better his or her chances of capturing the center, and with it, the election.
This framing has informed Democratic campaigns for over 25 years. It is the reason why, since the early 1990s, Democrats have worked hard to portray themselves as pro-business, pro-war, tough-on-crime, pragmatists while downplaying their populist and humanitarian tendencies. Democrats have come to believe, based on the example of Bill Clinton and his acolytes, that pivoting to the center will allow them to grab the bulk of those centrist voters -- which they believe to be the bulk of all voters -- and take their left wing base along with them because the base has nowhere else to go.
The only problem with this is that it's almost completely bunk. I suspect it never was true, and even if it was at one time, it certainly isn't now.
While the left-center-right model of politics provides a somewhat useful theoretical explanatory framework, people don't fall into such neat categories. Yes, there are people who, almost tribally, identify themselves with one party and would never consider voting for the other under any circumstances, but I'm not terribly concerned with them. No politician will ever turn the hardcore base of the opposition party in their favor, nor should he or she waste a lot of effort trying. Likewise, one should not fear attack from them, given that they are going to oppose you no matter what you do. Franklin Roosevelt is a good example to follow here. In 1936, as America was still litigating the New Deal, he knew who his opponents were and he knew they wanted him defeated. Rather than try to placate them or sidestep their attacks, he openly recognized them, saying “they are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
Most voters, even in a districts which lean heavily toward one party, like OH-12, are not such committed ideologues. Yes, the district skews Republican, but the number of staunch partisans in any district is often overstated.
This district, like others, contains economic conservatives who espouse markedly liberal social views. It contains reactionary social conservatives who nonetheless support increased social security and medicare benefits and who, when asked, say they'd support a national jobs program. There are economic liberals here who are devoutly religious and who resist pro-LGBT policies. There are social progressive entrepreneurs who, when their friends aren't listening, will tell you just how much they'd like that corporate tax cut. While committed and engaged political types might march in lockstep with one party's platform, most voters are not committed and engaged political types. Most voters have strong, predictable policy positions on one or two policies but upend those old political spectrum models when it comes to others.
At the same time, there is no evidence to suggest that the consensus on any one issue lies in the middle of a left-right spectrum. A 2014 study suggested, in fact, that the "moderate" position on any number of issues presented to participants in the study was typically the least popular and that people tended to gravitate in large groups to some surprisingly extreme positions. This shouldn't be terribly surprising as we've seen this born out in public opinion polls and heard it in conversations with our friends.
A large majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana which is typically portrayed as an extremely liberal position. Smaller majorities, but still a great many people, favor tougher immigration restrictions than we've had in the past, which is a conservative and, often, a reactionary viewpoint. Though their specifics -- and their sincerity -- varied wildly, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump delivered remarkably economically populist messages at times in 2016 -- messages often characterized as extreme -- gaining each of them surprising amounts of enthusiastic support. At the moment, the entire government is controlled by elected Republicans who have vowed to slash taxes and social programs, but slashing taxes and social programs is massively unpopular, suggesting no one was punished for refusing to take a "moderate" position on those issues.
On average, a lot of voters may wind up in the "center" overall but they may not inhabit a centrist position on any single issue. That's the problem with averages, right? The average age of the humans in my house is 26, but there is no one close to age 26 living in my house. A candidate should spend no more time trying to win the vote of the largely mythical centrist voter than I should spend looking for a 26-year-old in my kitchen. To the extent they set up their campaign to do so, they set themselves up to fail.
So, if you can't predict where the voters will be based on the old left-center-right spectrum, and if you can't play the old "establish your base in the primary and then pivot to the center in the general" game, how does a candidate connect to voters and gain their support?
The answer is to stop trying to identify abstract, ideological policy positions in the hopes of finding people who support them and to start looking at and listening to people and their concerns and to craft or support policies which address them, no matter how such policies are traditionally characterized, ideologically speaking.
The name of the game is to help make people's lives better which, in turn helps make our country better. It's a pretty simple game once you stop adhering to the old political conventional wisdom and start applying values, empathy, brains, compassion and creativity to the problems facing our country and its people.
In subsequent installments, I'll flesh out how this works in practice, addressing a number of problems and political issues through that lens.
Recently I wrote about why I think a Democrat can win Ohio's 12th Congressional district, despite it being gerrymandered to favor Republicans. In the coming days I'm going to talk about how a Democrat can actually win it.
This series of posts is not about the nuts and bolts of a campaign. This is about positioning, communication, tone and, above all else, policies, which will allow a Democrat to win a district that, generally speaking, leans Republican by a seven to nine point margin and which, a year ago, voted 54% in favor of Donald Trump and 66% in favor of a Republican congressional incumbent.
In the first installment, I want to talk about the elephant in the room: President Donald Trump. He will no doubt be a major factor in every election in 2018. It would be a mistake, however, to run solely or even primarily against Donald Trump, his character and his scandals. Indeed, I am confident that doing so will not win this seat, for one simple reason:
Winning politicians do not run against something. They run for something.
Donald Trump will no doubt continue to dominate the political scene for the foreseeable future. This district, in fact, would not be even remotely competitive if not for his alienating presence and for the damage he has already done. His election has motivated and mobilized people to an unprecedented degree. He is largely responsible for Pat Tiberi throwing in the towel in frustration, opening up the race.
Donald Trump will not be on the ballot, however. What's more, the Republican candidate who will be on the ballot will be a newcomer who will not have to defend a pro-Trump voting record. Indeed, I suspect he or she will move heaven and Earth to distance his or herself from Trump and will be able to do so relatively easily. As such, to the extent a Democrat makes the election, above all else, about Donald Trump, he or she will not be running against his or her opponent. What's more, he or she will allow the Republican to be he first to localize the race, the first to highlight issues voters care about and the first to claim, rightly or wrongly, that they have better answers about how to address those issues.
We'll talk about those issues more in coming installments. The key thing to understand for now, though, is that voters want to vote for something. They want to think that they are casting their vote to make their lives and the lives of their loved ones better. A successful candidate will be the one who convinces voters that they will help them do just that. Running against Donald Trump, first and foremost, will not accomplish this.
This is not a merely theoretical idea. There is a relatively recent precedent bearing it out.
In 1994, Republicans won back Congress in an historic wave election, with Republicans taking the House for the first time in over 40 years. While hysterical anger at the recently-elected Bill Clinton and his ill-fated healthcare reform effort did much to motivate the GOP base, a motivated base did not, by itself, create the wave that won that election.
Republicans won by historic margins in 1994 because they offered affirmative policy positions in the form of the Contract With America. To be sure, The Contract With America did not contain positive policy positions -- much of what was proposed was terrible policy -- but they were affirmative positions in the form of ten specific acts and multiple measures that corresponded with their political ideology. It told voters what they would do and how, in their view, it would help them and make their lives better. Voters may or may not have believed that Republicans could deliver, but they gave it a chance because people wanted then, as now, to believe that today will be better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today.
In subsequent elections the primary thrust of GOP rhetoric was opposing Bill Clinton and defeating him for the sake of defeating him. It was echoed in the 2000s, when Democrats tried to make elections about George W. Bush and in 2010, 2012 and 2014 when Republicans tried to make elections about Barack Obama. Those messages made the hardcore elements of the opposition base extraordinarily happy and, at times, led to some short term gains, but they alienated less-engaged voters and did not give them anything positive to grasp on to. Such messages did not create the sort of waves that help a minority party gain real power and cannot now be counted upon to form the basis of an affirmative political movement.
There has never been a less popular president heading into his first midterm election than Donald Trump. As time goes on his unpopularity will likely increase as details of the various scandals surrounding him continue to come out and as a compliant, spineless Republican-controlled Congress continues to abide him in the name of advancing their harmful agenda. Activist groups such as the Indivisible groups have and will continue to channel the energy, excitement and, yes, anger that has exploded onto the political scene from the left in the past year as a result of Trump's toxic presidency. Any candidate who wishes to win OH-12 must, without question, work with these groups and their members, listening to their concerns and pledging to help them accomplish their goals. No candidate running for office should shy away from saying they will fight Donald Trump and restore Congress' seemingly abandoned oversight responsibilities.
Fighting Trump, however, will not by itself convince a critical number of the 66% of the district which voted Republican in 2016, let alone the 54% of it that voted for Trump to cast a ballot for a Democrat. A campaign centered on fighting Trump will not give people who are not as engaged as political activists are (i.e. most voters) a reason to engage. It will not draw in voters who want, above all else, to create a better tomorrow and who will help create the wave necessary to flip OH-12 from red to blue.
This does not mean running a centrist campaign. This does not mean equivocating on one's deeply-held convictions. Above all else it does not mean taking that motivated base for granted and reaching out in vain to attract staunch Republican voters to a compromised liberal or progressive agenda. In Part 2 of this series, I'll explain why that is.
Earlier this afternoon, Paul Ryan was on Brian Kilmeade's show on Fox Radio. He was asked if the GOP had to make a choice between supporting Trump or going its own way. Ryan said this:
"We already made that choice. We’re with Trump . . We all agreed on that agenda."
This is a critical admission from Ryan which is going to come back to haunt him.
Trump is, needless to say, not popular. Yesterday Ed Gillespie, who had attempted to ape Trump's messaging and style, was soundly defeated in the Virginia gubernatorial race. It's a sure thing that, as Trump's approval ratings continue to languish, Republican candidates will not even try to do what he did and, rather, will attempt to distance themselves from Trump as much as they can. This is especially true in districts, such as mine, which did not support Trump nearly as strongly as they supported other Republicans in the past.
Ryan has foreclosed the possibility. Or, at the very least, he has made is such that any Republican who does not wish to be tied to Trump must likewise distance themselves from Ryan and the Republicans in Congress, whom Ryan leads. After all, now that Ryan has admitted that Trump's agenda is their agenda, it will become the agenda of candidates who seek the support of the Republican establishment. I don't know how a candidate can convincingly do that without closing off critical avenues of support, financial and otherwise. I don't know how you even get the nomination of your party while repudiating its leaders.
I do know, however, that anyone running against a Republican in 2018 should obtain audio of Ryan's comments today and pound the message home, over and over again, that there is no daylight between Republicans and Trump. That a vote for a Republican is a vote for Trump. There should not be a single Democratic campaign that does not paint its opponent with Ryan's "we're with Trump" declaration and who does not, when his or her opponent claims not to be, ask them to prove it.
This was a pretty stunning miscalculation by Ryan. I suspect he and many other Republican candidates will end up paying for it.
A few weeks ago my congressman, Pat Tiberi, announced his resignation. When he leaves the House at the end of January, he will take a job leading the Ohio Business Roundtable, a lobbying group for the state's biggest businesses and the CEOs who run them.
Yesterday Tiberi, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, began presiding over hearings for the Republicans' new tax bill. The bill, sold to the public with lie after lie after lie, provides massive benefits for corporations and massive benefits for CEOs and the people who make the sort of money they make. CEOs like Leslie Wexner, Ohio's richest man, pictured here on the Ohio Business Roundtable's "About Us" page:
Wexner, a board member of the Roundtable, happens to live in Tiberi's district and has donated thousands upon thousands of dollars to Tiberi's campaigns over the years. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.
There are millions of people who will be worse off if and when the tax bill passes. Millions more who will be further harmed once its consequences fully play out. Meanwhile, there will be a few hundred CEOs -- and their layabout heirs -- who make out like bandits. Pat Tiberi, one of the men most responsible for passing this bill, will literally be working for those CEOs when the law takes effect.
Tiberi will face no consequences for his blatant conflict of interest. He has filed all the proper disclosures and abided by all the relevant ethics laws in taking his new job. He likewise never has to face the voters of our district again, so delivering his new corporate bosses exactly what they want while harming the people he still, technically, represents, will create no problems for him whatsoever. He's going to get away it.
We in Ohio's 12th District, however, can prevent this from happening again. We can make it a point to elect a successor to Tiberi who is not beholden to corporate interests. We can demand that whoever takes Tiberi's seat demonstrate that they will carry out the will of the people who vote for him or her, not the will of the people they'll look to for their next job after they leave Congress.
When the candidates to replace Pat Tiberi come forward, ask yourself: who do they work for? Answer that question by looking at who gives them money, who vouches for them and what it is, exactly, that they promise to do for those people. Then ask yourself if we do not already have enough people in Congress working for the rich and for corporate interests.
Sometimes, like Pat Tiberi, quite literally so.
In the last year we've learned all too well that Donald Trump is seemingly immune from scandal and impervious to shame. Not a week goes by that he doesn't say or do something that would end anyone else's political career. We've lost count of the things which have happened in and around his personal and political orbit that would stop a politician's agenda dead in its tracks. At the moment his top advisors are being investigated for conspiring with Russians to subvert our democracy. That's something which got people executed in my parents' lifetime.
Despite this, the Trump train, however slowed in the public opinion polls and however assailed by the public opinion pages, continues to chug, more or less, forward, announcing policy initiatives that will likely pass and which will shape our country for decades to come. No one in a position to stand up to Trump and say "no" seems willing to do so.
A little over a year ago I wrote a post about the troubling manner in which politicians and public figures talk about complicated subjects. About how they seem to increasingly rely on anecdote and references to their personal experiences when addressing matters of policy, ethics or morality rather than on facts or ideas. About how, for some reason, they could not talk about, say, sexual harassment without referencing their "wives and daughters" or they could not talk about taxes or social policy without making reference to some local farmer or businessman who would be affected.
On some level I get why they do this. People like stories and first person accounts. We respond to them well. On a geologic scale we're barely removed from a time when oral tradition was our primary means of understanding the world, so it makes sense that we respond to personal appeals.
Our public discourse seems to have gone too deeply into the personal and anecdotal, however, to the point where tales, rather than facts, data and ideas, have come to dominate the conversation. Yes, my friend, I'm glad that you care about the advancement of women now that your daughter is getting her MBA, but can we talk about the advancement of women who are not your daughter? Sure, I suppose I'd be curious to know how this new regulation personally affects Joe Smith from East Alton, Illinois, but it's probably more important to know what it means in objective terms -- defined by facts and figures -- for the country as a whole, wouldn't you agree?
The point of that essay was that we spend too much time creating narratives when it comes public life and policy, often baseless ones, and not enough time thinking. We spend a lot of time talking about our feelings too -- using the language of anger or personal offense for the most part in recent times -- but we do it in a rather self-centered way, lacking in empathy for anyone beyond ourselves or our immediate circle. That's an acceptable way to run a village, maybe, but it's no way to run a county of over 300 million people.
I wrote that post a month before Donald Trump was elected, in response to the 2005 "Access Hollywood" video in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. I wrote it because everyone asked to comment on it referenced their wives and daughters and did little if anything to say, full stop, that such behavior should be condemned as unacceptable even if you don't have a wife or a daughter. Little did I know when I wrote it that such a scandal -- the sort of scandal which would definitively wreck any politician who came before him -- would be a mere footnote on Trump's way to claiming the presidency, regardless of how many wives and daughters were invoked.
Little, also, did I know that what would transpire since the election would validate a warning I first heard 26 years ago, which explains both that which troubled me a year ago and that which is transpiring today.
Back at Ohio State, in the early 1990s, I had a history professor named Alan Beyerchen. I wasn't a history major -- ours was merely an intro to western civ class and most of the curriculum was outside of Professor Beyerchen's specific area of research -- but he was more engaging and enthusiastic about teaching freshmen and sophomores than most professors I ever had. He'd often digress from the day's lecture to talk about larger cosmic issues. One he hit on, time and again, was about how history is animated by its actors defining their personal identity in opposition to that of their enemies (people proclaiming that which is "self" vs. that which is "other" explains oh so much over the centuries). Another one of the big cosmic issues he talked about was how, in his view, we seemed to be on the verge of entering a "high tech dark age."
Beyerchen seemed focused on what he felt as the then-primordial information age's attack on literacy and personal agency. He worried about us moving away from writing and books -- he was particularly upset at how poor his students' writing skills were, mine included -- and suggested that computers and the ability to edit without a lot of hassle was partially responsible. He talked about the prospect of virtual communities supplanting real communities, the ethical hazards of technological advances (which then, as now, were so often promised to be benign) and what all of that might mean for an enlightened civil society. He wasn't necessarily alone in these preoccupations, of course. A lot of people were worried about that stuff then, albeit on a much more superficial level than Beyerchen was. Just look at the science fiction of the mid-90s and all of its virtual reality and Internet panic as evidence.
It went deeper than that for Beyerchen, though. He wasn't some guy merely grousing about technology and all of its alleged perils. For him the most serious risk of the coming high tech dark age was an epistemic crisis. A crisis in which, due to the waning influence of institutions that characterized enlightened society such as libraries, universities and governmental bodies run by and for a literate, educated and engaged populace, simply agreeing on what truth and knowledge and information is would be a challenge. If knowledge was less etched in stone than transferred via ephemeral means, would it not risk becoming intangible? Mutable? And if it did, what value would it truly hold for people?
Once you're in that situation -- a situation in which people find it simple and even preferable to disagree on basic facts -- truth itself is a malleable concept. Once human beings aren't sure what is true, they tend to revert to superstition and fear. Once you have a population of fearful, superstitious people who don't know what is true, those in power are able to warp reality even more and are able to exert control over them more easily than they already do. If the people are afraid enough, they'll be quite happy to allow it.
That, for all practical purposes, is the definition of a dark age. It's a dark age even if we have a lot of shiny technology and even if we've eradicated the plague.
This afternoon I read something which makes me believe that the epistemic crisis which would usher in a new dark age is already upon us. It's from David Roberts at Vox, and it describes the way in which the right wing political and media establishment has rendered facts malleable and increasingly meaningless:
Roberts' concern: that Robert Mueller's investigation will prove a case of Donald Trump's participation in an illegal conspiracy to subvert our political system and that no one will do a thing about it. That the Republicans in charge of the legislative branch will shirk their responsibilities to check the executive because they fear political reprisals from a base that is intoxicated with a cocktail of misinformation and anger, served by the right wing media establishment.
It sounds right. It's not driven solely by technology, the way my old professor worried it might be, even if it's driven by it a good deal. Mostly it's driven by a craving for power and an utter lack of scruples or shame. Any way you slice it, it sounds like the stuff of a new dark age.
In the wake of yesterday's deadly vehicular attack in Manhattan, President Trump, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and others have called for the accused attacker to be handed over to the military, for him to be sent to Guantanamo Bay and for his Miranda rights and other due process protections afforded to him under the Constitution to be disposed of.
This is not new, of course. Men in Trump's McCain's and Graham's position have long sought such Constitutional rollbacks for terrorist suspects of a certain kind (though, curiously, not for terrorist suspects of a different kind). They most famously obtained such things after 9/11, with the passage Patriot Act, the advent of black site torture and interrogation centers and the imprisonment of terrorist suspects and men designated "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay, with its attendant permanent, trial-free detentions.
Not that those were their only efforts in this regard. In 2010 Senator McCain sponsored the "Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act," which called for placing terrorist suspects -- including those whose alleged criminal acts occurred on American soil -- in indefinite military custody for purposes of interrogation, during which time their Constitutional rights would be suspended. Calls for similar measures are often renewed following acts of terrorism.
The common thread: fear and distrust of the American criminal justice system. A belief that, somehow, our centuries-old institutions are unable to handle such cases. This is a baseless and pathetic claim. Our criminal justice system has repeatedly shown that it is capable of dealing with terrorism suspects. In contrast, our habit of throwing detainees into secret detention sites and dispensing with due process and the rule of law has been a miserable failure.
Federal civilian criminal courts have convicted hundreds of individuals on terrorism-related charges since 9/11. These convictions include those resulting from investigations of terrorist and criminal acts by those with identified links to international terrorism and include several high-profile terrorists such as the “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, the "Times Square Bomber" Faisal Shahzad and Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. In contrast, military commissions have convicted only eight. All of those prosecutions took years and cost millions. In the end, three of those convictions were overturned completely and one overturned partially.
Some who advocate for military tribunals doubt the security of a U.S. courtroom and stoke fears about the safety of the populace near where suspects are held, but such claims are baseless. Federal prisons hold hundreds of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses and none have ever escaped. None of the federal districts which have held or tried terrorism suspects have been attacked in retaliation.
Others say that the seriousness and high-profile nature of the crimes demand a different sort of justice system. This, however, is exactly what terror suspects want. They want to be martyrs, figuratively if not literally, and want to appear as though they have gained the special attention of our highest elected officials. When they get it -- when we publicly freak out like Trump, McCain and Graham are and put them before army officers in a special proceeding -- their supporters can cast them as warriors, taking on the United States government and the United States Army. When you put them in a courtroom in a federal courthouse, they're just criminals. Their crimes cast as simple murder, not an act of war.
There is a greater flaw with the calls for military tribunals and the denial of suspects' rights than their lack of efficacy, however: denying due process rights to our enemies defies the very values we are fighting to protect.
The Constitution is not optional. Indefinite detention, suspension of basic rights and the deprivation of Due Process flies in the face of American values and violates this country’s commitment to the rule of law. Sacrificing our principles in the vain hope that doing so will make us safe has only made us weak. Weak because it sends the message to our enemies that our most sacred ideals are not strong enough to withstand external threats. Weak because it sends the message to our would-be allies that we do not stand for that which we claim to stand and that our words and promises carry no weight.
A man attacked innocent people in New York yesterday, and he should be held responsible for his crimes. Attacking our Constitution, our federal courts, the rule of law and the bedrock values upon which our country was built is no way to do that. Indeed, doing so more effectively wages war on America and its institutions than anything a criminal terrorist suspect can ever hope to accomplish.