#American Dreamers

Has the Democratic Party lost its ability to govern?

22 augustus 2018

The 2010 midterm elections, two years after Barack Obama’s election, ended in a decisive Republican victory. Can the Democrats achieve a similar result on november 6?

What should the Democrats do?

Donald J. Trump is campaigning with renewed vigor in the wake of his successful Supreme Court Justice nomination.  Moreover, the drama and the salacious details covered in the press or vocalized as testimony in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, fit his made-for-TV-reality-show presidency.  At the same time, his supporters continue to respond to the fear cultivated in his rhetoric and continue to adore Trump’s nonconformist methods.  What is the party in opposition to do?  Should it adopt the Trumpian playbook and his line of attack in the lead-up to the midterm elections or should it follow former First Lady Michelle Obama’s advice that “fear is not a proper motivator?”

Winners and losers

The atmosphere and culture in Washington D.C. transformed over the past two years to reflect the personality and methods of the sitting president.  Washington has become Trumpian, with politicians adopting his style, his bellicose attitude and his fear tactics.  However, even by Trump’s standards, the highs and lows of the recent confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh stand out as an extreme partisan knife fight.

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The prospect of the most conservative court in over 60 years, as well as the #metoo quality of the accusations directed at Kavanaugh, brought an unprecedented level of protest to the halls of the U.S. Capitol buildings.  By now, everyone knows about the way Senators were hounded in elevators, in hallways or outside their offices by concerned women, who were willing to scream their fears in ways not seen since the anti-Vietnam protests of the mid-1960s and early 1970s.  The backlash against this raw emotion—of angry women on the loose in the halls of power—has been swift and almost gleeful.

This backlash cemented the Democratic Party’s losses in the confirmation process.  Not only were Democrats unable to stop the replacement of a “swing judge” with the appointment of a conservative one, but the character of the protest against Kavanaugh was alienating and discrediting to their party.   Although it is clear that Trump supporters continue to exalt his methods, it remains unclear what motivates moderate Republicans, independents and undecided voters.  The outcome of the midterm elections could hinge on whether these voters find the protests against Kavanaugh repellant or not.

Fear the “angry leftwing mob”

Republican strategists clearly believe that linking Democrats to the “assault” and the “intimidation” that went on in the halls of Congress is a winning approach.  In a recent interview, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell sounded cheerful in his statements that Republican voters are galvanized by the tumultuous confirmation process and disgust for the torrid accusations against Justice Kavanaugh.  McConnell argued that Democrats encouraged the objectionable behavior of the “angry mob.”  Thus, McConnell’s message to voters is that if Democrats win control of the House and the Senate, the irrational horde will win control of governing.

McConnell’s second message is more refined and directed at those Republicans who focus on cultural issues and the composition of the Supreme Court.  To such Republicans the implication is that only a Republican-controlled Senate will ensure a conservative court in the future.  Both messages are designed to raise threat levels—to create fear in the minds of would be voters—in order to garner greater turnout of pro-Trump supporters in the midterm elections, in particular to save the Senate.

We’ve been here before

Just as raw, confrontational, emotional protests were a part of the 1960s and early 1970s experience in the U.S., so too is the current Republican strategy.   For example, in the run up to the November 1972 elections, Republicans depicted the Democrats as left-wing extremists who would disarm the United States and open the White House to riotous street mobs.  At the same time, Republicans depicted themselves as the party of law and order.  Trump’s tweet that “Republicans believe in the rule of law, not the rule of the mob,” is an echo of these previous Republican Party tactics.

“You don’t hand matches to arsonists”

Republicans who care about the composition of the Supreme Court and are motivated by cultural issues, will surely be swayed by the combination of fear of the mob and the naked rhetoric that the Republican Party stands for a return to a more conservative society.  However, it is not certain that moderates and undecided voters will be equally persuaded by such threats or as Trump recently put it, a vote for the Democrats is like handing matches to an arsonist.

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Will the Republicans overplay their hand in depicting Trump’s party as one that truly champions the rule of law and the fight against objectionable behavior?  Since polling was a dark and rather failing art the last round of elections, it is difficult to predict whether fear of the mob will work to get Republicans re-elected on 6 November 2018.

Yet, we do know what happened the last time the Republican Party used these same tactics in the 1972 election.  Their fear campaign coupled with a strategy to present Nixon as a centrist leader resulted in 49 out of 50 states voting for Nixon in the general election.  The perceived excesses of Democratic Party-linked protesters in 1972 allowed leaders in the Republican Party to present their party as the responsible one.

Democrats would be wise, in the next xx days, to work on their Plan-B—their continued minority status in the Senate plan.  It would not hurt if they also threw in a few prayers for 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health.

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