The agony, the ecstasy and the Ossoff: Democrats are full of excuses, but the truth hurts

Democrats are full of excuses after their latest and most agonizing defeat. They're starting to ring hollow

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 24, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders; Jon Ossoff; Hillary Clinton   (Getty/Alex Wong/Joe Raedle/Justin Sullivan/Salon)
Bernie Sanders; Jon Ossoff; Hillary Clinton (Getty/Alex Wong/Joe Raedle/Justin Sullivan/Salon)

After five months and four special elections under President Donald Trump, neither faction in the Democratic Party’s civil war can claim anything beyond “moral victories” (better known as defeats) and a whole bunch of excuses. Democrats nominated a folksy Berniecrat progressive, more or less, in Montana. He lost to a guy who punched out a reporter. They nominated a clean-cut Clintonite moderate, more or less, in suburban Atlanta. He lost to a woman who said she was against “a livable wage.”

Yes, the margins in those different elections in different places were similarly close -- but whatever you think you may know about Democratic turnout in those races, it was downright dreadful. (They were close, in the end, because Republican turnout was even worse.) Democrats also nominated hopeless unknowns in elections in Kansas and South Carolina where they never thought they had a chance — and came surprisingly close to winning those too. You know what they say about “close.”

There might be some complicated lessons to be learned here about patience and strategy and messaging and policy — or, in all honesty, there might not. Four off-year elections in red states is an extremely poor data set, subject to almost any interpretive spin you want to enforce. I’m already on record in full-Cassandra mode when it comes to the “blue wave” fantasy of 2018 that will supposedly produce a Democratic House majority, drive Trump from office and restore sanity, decency and normalcy from sea to shining sea. First of all, what sanity and normalcy are being restored, and where do we find them? The status quo ante of Nov. 7, 2016? Was that sane and normal? Barack Obama’s first election night in 2008? Bill Clinton’s administration, before we realized he was a lecherous ogre with dreadful policies? Who the hell knows? It’s the liberal version of Making America Great Again.

But it’s way too early for “I told you so.” If we stick to the limited facts available at the moment, I think we can see the Democratic Party’s current predicament more clearly. Democrats and liberals across the country went all-in on Jon Ossoff’s campaign in the Sixth District of Georgia, I guess because it was the only game in town. They were hungry for a big symbolic victory that would validate the party and its 2018 campaign as the most authentic and most pragmatic vehicle for the anti-Trump resistance. Whatever they may say about it now, they thought they could win that one, and they didn’t. It wasn’t even a nail-biter or a photo finish: Republican Karen Handel, a compromised, inarticulate and conspicuously evil candidate, led the count from beginning to end and won by about 10,000 votes.

All that has happened since then, by way of internal reflection, is a renewal of the social-media war between the Bernie-fied progressives and the Hillary-style centrists, with each side accusing the other of being the reason none of us can have dessert without a swirl of Trump on top. Inevitably, the Ossoff episode is being read as a chapter in the Democratic civil war, although I suspect its real significance is broader than that.

I agree with Salon contributor Bill Curry (who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton) that open internal conflict over policies and principles — and over the nature of power and politics, and what works and doesn’t work in American society — is a necessary aspect of rebuilding the Democratic Party. But I’m not sure any such contest of ideas is actually happening beneath all the name-calling and mutual recrimination. One of the problems illustrated in miniature by the Ossoff case is that Democratic moderates or centrists no longer do ideas, and appear to believe politics is better off without them.

I'm trying to get past some zero-sum question of who's more right and who's got a winning political strategy, which frankly isn't that interesting. Bernie Sanders and his insurgent troops have injected a ferocious new energy into the party, but they have no monopoly on the truth and some of them have undeniably behaved like jerks at times. At their most effective the Democrats have always been a party of factions; every possible path back to power will involve a tactical alliance between mainstream liberal coalition-builders and progressives who seek major structural reform. If this party is to have any future at all, it cannot see economic justice and full equality for women, LGBT people, African-Americans and immigrants as distinct or separable priorities.

The problem with the Democratic moderates is not they are moderates whose ideas are worse than those of their opponents. That's a subjective question, after all, and such conflict is in the nature of politics. It's more that they don't want to talk about their ideas or defend them, and often -- as in the agonized case of Jon Ossoff -- give the strong impression of not having any.

The problem is that the constellation of neoliberal positions known as the “Washington consensus,” which has long been embraced by mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike -- positions on free trade and fiscal austerity and financial deregulation and the national security state and a bunch of related matters -- has suddenly become politically toxic. Bill Clinton would have been eager to defend and debate all those things 20 years ago (and, hell, he probably still would) but no major figure in the Democratic Party wants to talk about them today. Many people in the center or right of the party, wrong-footed by this entire development, either claim to have no ideology at all or claim to have forgotten or recanted a whole bunch of it. Jon Ossoff chose the first path; Hillary Clinton the second. You will notice the parallels in terms of outcome.

Ossoff’s defeat was a crushing and confusing blow to the Clintonista moderates, who keep believing, Dorothy-style, that if they find the right pair of ruby slippers and click them together they can undo everything that happened in 2016 at a single stroke. Many of the excuses and rationalizations and “next year in Jerusalem” assurances offered to frame the Ossoff debacle sound reasonable enough, at first glance. They might seem even more so if those same people hadn’t spent the previous week assuring us, in the classic mode of adults who understand the real world and how it works, that Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected success in the British election could provide no useful model for America or the Democrats because Corbyn hadn’t actually won anything.

It’s certainly true that Republicans had a built-in demographic advantage in the Georgia Sixth, which is mostly white and highly affluent and has been held by the GOP for almost 40 years. It’s true that previous incumbent Tom Price — now Trump’s secretary of health and human services — was re-elected last fall by a margin of 23 points. To take a giant leap off the top of Big Rock Candy Mountain, it is technically true that if the relative vote shift from Republican to Democrat that we saw in Georgia (and Montana and South Carolina) were replicated across the country in the 2018 midterms, Democrats would easily win back the House majority.

But I’m not sure how to characterize the argument that because this one thing happened, this one time, under these circumstances in these places, it’s bound to happen again on a grand scale in a national election a year and a half from now. You could say that it’s wildly optimistic, or that it represents a semi-endearing blind faith in the sudden return of “normal” American politics, in the face of all available evidence. Or you could just say that it’s a total crock. It’s the kind of thing losing political parties say, to convince themselves that their defeats are not actually defeats because the Democracy Fairy will turn them into victories at some undefined point in the future.

Furthermore, as I hinted earlier, the dominant liberal narrative about what happened in the Georgia Sixth is somewhere between highly misleading and complete fiction. If you’ve gotten the impression that the commuter hellscape of the northern Atlanta 'burbs saw a surge of anti-Trump, pro-Democratic enthusiasm that wasn’t quite enough to put Ossoff over the top, that’s 100 percent fake news. Want to know how many votes Ossoff picked up with all those millions of dollars in outside donations and all those doorbell-ringing volunteers? I will tell you: Essentially none.

No, it's true. Ossoff received almost exactly the same vote total as the district’s previous Democratic nominee got against Tom Price in 2016. (In fact, he got 24 fewer votes than that guy. Twenty-four!) The race was close because Karen Handel underperformed drastically, getting about 66,000 fewer votes than Price did in November. I’m going to say that again: There were no Democratic gains in that district at all. The “vote shift” was entirely a matter of bummed-out Republicans staying home. The dynamic in Montana was similar, if slightly worse for both sides: Democrat Rob Quist got 40,000 fewer votes than the last defeated Democrat, while the infamous Greg Gianforte fell 95,000 votes short of previous GOP incumbent Ryan Zinke.

Maybe that’s the grand Democratic strategy for 2018: Depressed voter turnout! Republicans are bewildered about Trump, and if you can run somebody so bland and inoffensive that they don't get pissed off, they might not show up at all. It would be a measure of karmic payback for the Koch brothers, I guess.

More seriously, those startling numbers from Georgia call into question the apparently reasonable premise that the only way Democrats could possibly compete there was to run a milquetoast moderate with no discernible ideology. You can’t win in an archetypal “Panera district” like that one (the theory holds) by terrifying the polite, professional white folks with vows to tax the rich, provide health care for all and jack up the price of that Cinnamon Dolce Light Frappuccino with a $15 minimum wage.

That might all be true, as a matter of electoral calculus. But if the Democrats are now playing the Republicans’ game of trying to shrink the opposing voter base instead of expanding their own, another Rubicon has been crossed in the degradation of democracy. Maybe an activist firebrand candidate might have expanded the Democratic base or motivated the district's modest African-American population or done something, anything, beyond spending vast sums of money to accomplish literally nothing. Such a candidate might also might have sparked an intense Republican response and lost anyway, to be sure. But isn’t it better, in terms of morale and long-term strategy, to go down fighting on principle than to go down as a calculated nonentity?

Jon Ossoff was not a whole bunch of things: He had no political experience and no discernible ideology. He did not actually live in the district where he ran for Congress. (He did not look old enough to shave.) To his credit, he was not Donald Trump, not a Republican, not vicious or venal or insane, and those things formed the entire text of his campaign. Ossoff also did not win, and it would not have mattered much if he had. Instead of engineering a symbolic victory, his campaign drained an immense amount of money and activist energy into a black hole of disappointment and defeat.

I'm sure Ossoff is a nice person and everything, but in political terms it’s impossible to say what he was or is. He embodies a fundamental not-ness that has become the Democratic brand, despite its singular lack of market success over the past decade or so. Anyone who seriously believes that the road to victory in 2018 or 2020 or at any other time lies in not-ness, in appearing decent and competent and non-crazy and non-threatening while refusing to be pinned down or to promise anything specific, is still pretending that 2016 and You Know Who and all those people in the ugly red hats didn’t happen or didn’t matter or will soon be whisked away, if we wish hard enough, by the aforementioned Democracy Fairy, in her sensible but stylish DKNY suit that was right there on the rack at the Saks outlet and wasn’t really that expensive.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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