I was wrong about the "blue wave": It's here. But where will it land and what does it mean?

What will happen in November? Who knows! But the wave led by progressive women is transforming American politics

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 15, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Alessandra Biaggi; Julia Salazar; Ayanna Pressley (AP/Shutterstock/www.biaggi4ny.com)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Alessandra Biaggi; Julia Salazar; Ayanna Pressley (AP/Shutterstock/www.biaggi4ny.com)

More than a year ago — in Trump time, it feels like another century — I wrote contemptuously that there would be no “blue wave” in 2018. I was wrong, perhaps spectacularly so. I think the most interesting questions are why I was wrong and what exactly I was wrong about, along with one we can’t possibly answer right now, which is what kind of politics and what kind of country we will experience in 2019 and beyond.

The first and most instructive thing I was wrong about is that I failed to foresee how the power of women’s righteous anger would transform the political landscape in an extraordinarily short time. This has been evident throughout the extraordinary events of this primary season, culminating this week in New York, where seven moderate Democratic state senators were ousted by progressive challengers, four of whom were women (and none of whom was a white man).

In my own district, Sen. Jeff Klein, a longtime Bronx power broker, spent $2 million to defend his seat — and lost so badly to challenger Alessandra Biaggi that he didn’t even show up at his own election night party. In an even more striking primary result across the river in Brooklyn, voters chucked out an inoffensive Democratic incumbent, Sen. Martin Dilan, in favor of 27-year-old Julia Salazar, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. (I haven’t researched this question, but surely this is the DSA’s biggest year ever.)

In the political hothouse of New York City, this is clearly the “Ocasio-Cortez effect” in action: Biaggi and Salazar are both closely allied with congresswoman-to-be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as is Jessica Ramos, another progressive who ousted an incumbent senator in Queens. But virtually everywhere across the country, it’s female candidates — many of them leftists or progressives, but also plenty of mainstream liberals and moderates — who form the leading edge of this year’s Democratic wave.

This has been an important learning experience for many men, and I’m looking in the mirror here a bit. It’s obvious to everyone that women voters are the core of the Democratic constituency, but I also believe that that the ingrained and often unconscious reluctance among many male voters to support a female candidate is being burned away in the Trump era. Or to put it another way, most men motivated by sexist impulses have been driven into the camp of the most overtly misogynistic political figure in modern history, and the rest of us have been forced to reckon with reality at last.

Let’s insert the requisite caveats here: Nothing that has happened so far this year dictates the outcome of the November elections, and there are still vaguely reasonable scenarios under which Republicans could hold their congressional majorities. But does it feel that way to you?

I submit that it feels that way to no one. Paul Ryan didn’t decide to bail out on a once-stellar political career just on a whim, or because he misses canasta night back in Wisconsin so much. At this writing, roughly 50 days before the midterm elections, almost everyone in and around politics would be shocked if Democrats didn’t pick up at least the 24 seats they need for a House majority, their first since 2010.

The question is largely how big that majority will be: Are we talking just a few seats, held by a fractious and divided party in an even more divided Congress? Or is this one of those unpredictable wave elections like 2010 or 1994, when numerous incumbents who believe they’re safely above the flood waters will wake up on Nov. 7 seeking new employment, and the opposition party wins 50 or 60 or 70 seats?

We should observe that almost everyone expects the Democrats to win. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Donald Trump believes he is the Lucky Charms leprechaun of politics, able to rescue all gloomy, pudgy, third-tier Republican candidates through the sheer Sun King effulgence of his fake-news personality. (Whenever a Trump-endorsed candidate loses, that is taken as evidence that the guy simply didn’t love Trump enough. Isn't it at least a little bit endearing that no human being has ever been less encumbered by shame? No, I guess it isn’t.)

Republicans have recently begun talking semi-openly about losing the House, and are now beginning to worry about losing the Senate, a prospect that seemed inconceivable only a few weeks ago. The odds are still in their favor, to be sure — only nine of the 35 Senate seats up for election this year are held by Republicans, and most of those are in deep-red states — but that sort of talk about odds and norms and reasonable expectations is nowhere near as reassuring as it used to be.

I don’t want to get too deep into political calculus, but if this is really a wave election Republicans have plenty of reason to worry. There are two Senate seats that have looked like plausible Democratic pickups all along, in Arizona and Nevada, and over the last week or so the political class has begun to contemplate the possibility that the previously impregnable Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas actually might lose to Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose politics are imprecise but has become a prairie-fire phenomenon. (How much that is colored by the fact that at least half the Senate Republicans loathe Cruz and would love to see him defeated is difficult to say.)

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, fully Trumpian Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn faces a tight race against former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a bland, middle-road Democrat with no discernible stands on anything. If Democrats win any three of those four races, then one of the embattled red-state Democratic senators up this year — like Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota or Joe Donnelly in Indiana — could lose, and they’d still end up with 51 seats.

I’m not predicting that’s what will happen, to be clear. I’m observing that it seems conceivable enough to keep Mitch McConnell pulling at the Kentucky bourbon long into the night, and that’s a sign of how much the ground has shifted. When I wrote my original ha-ha-no-blue-wave article, no one imagined that a Democrat could win a Senate election in Alabama, or a House election in a deeply Trumpy blue-collar district in western Pennsylvania. No one outside their immediate communities had heard of Ocasio-Cortez or Ayanna Pressley (who defeated Rep. Mike Capuano in Massachusetts) or Andrew Gillum (who defeated establishment Democrat Gwen Graham in the Florida governor's race), or the numerous other progressive insurgents who have won primaries against better-funded and better-known candidates.

My previous prediction that Democrats would once again find a way to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory — or, as Samantha Bee has put it, that there’s no guarantee the party could take back a shopping cart, let along Congress — was based on a number of assumptions that made me sound smart at the time. Some of those have proven false, but not all of them.

First of all, I assumed that being the anti-Trump party — in effect, the party of decency and sensible management and not much ideology — would not be enough. That was partly or largely incorrect: In many districts and many states, appearing to be reasonable adults (who value women’s equal participation in the human race) in the face of the ever-darkening weirdness of the Trumpnado may well be sufficient to win elections. Whether that leads toward a viable governing coalition or long-term political stability is quite a different question.

READ MORE: The Year of the Woman in electoral politics? Maybe so — but not for Republicans

I also assumed that the Democratic Party’s political and organizational decay over the Clinton and Obama decades — which saw it virtually wiped off the map in many heartland states — had rendered it incapable of delivering a coherent message, or learning the abundant lessons from its recent history of inglorious defeat. That one’s more complicated: It’s a little bit true and a little bit false, depending on how the light falls on the picture.

It’s certainly true that many Democrats believed that what happened in 2016 was essentially a fluke, and that the status quo ante of the pre-Trump years would reassert itself: Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote, long-term demographic trends were in their favor and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon seemed like an unrepeatable one-time event. Those were not entirely unreasonable views, to be fair; but they added up to a narrative of massive wrongness.

What I failed to foresee, and pretty much no one else did either, was that the ideological battle within the Democratic Party would spread so rapidly and on so many fronts, with such dramatic results. It is not pure coincidence that most of the potential contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination, including former “moderates” like Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, have suddenly embraced Bernie-lite agendas that include single-payer health care, legalized marijuana, raising the minimum wage and other progressive reforms. Even more important, for all the bickering and sniping back and forth between the progressive and moderate camps, this battle has overwhelmingly been a positive phenomenon in political terms.

Let’s put it this way: A party that nominates Conor Lamb in one district and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in another, and allows them to agree to disagree about many things, far more closely resembles the pre-Ronald Reagan Democratic Party that dominated American politics for 40 years. (Lamb and Ocasio-Cortez would agree on at least one thing, interestingly: That Nancy Pelosi’s time is up.) That party of yesteryear encompassed numerous factions that fought each other bitterly, yet it managed to accommodate liberals like Hubert Humphrey, progressives like George McGovern, path-breaking pioneers like Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug, and Cold War proto-neocons like Henry “Scoop” Jackson, semi-affectionately known as the “senator from Boeing” for his devotion to expanded military spending, especially if big chunks of it were directed to Washington state.

You and I might conclude that some of those ideological currents were more savory than others, but that’s at least partly beside the point. Indeed, anyone who insists today that there’s some one-size-fits-all formula for Democratic victory — that all candidates everywhere must embrace Medicare for All and the abolition of ICE or, conversely, that to bring such things up at all will contaminate the national brand with Commie germs and send suburban moms shrieking into Donald Trump’s arms — is missing the point on a grand scale.

Internal conflict and debate are healthy within political parties, and only the long-term PTSD of the Democratic Party after the disorientation of the 1970s and ‘80s made it seem otherwise. For close to 30 years, Democrats have operated on the principle that intra-party conflict had to be suppressed — indeed, that ideology itself had to be suppressed — and the progressive left had to be purged or silenced, because those things were electoral poison. It took an embarrassingly long time for the party to figure out that the neoliberal, anti-ideological orthodoxy of the Bill Clinton “New Democrat” years (in which issues of economic justice, for instance, were deemed not to exist or not to matter) was the real poison. I think we can conclude that era is now over, thank the goddess.

I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture here, either for the Democratic Party or the country: The corruption and corrosion of democracy that led America to Donald Trump was a long-term process in which both parties collaborated, and defeating the Republicans this fall (or defeating Trump two years hence) will provide no panacea. It will take years, if not decades, to figure out whether this republic can be salvaged.

Whether the internally conflicted potential Democratic majority of 2019 can get anything done is an open question. (In the near term, the only reasonable answer is probably not.) But the fact that those conflicts are no longer hidden or forbidden, and that Democrats are now fighting each other and the opposition over real political and ideological principles, rather than pretending those things do not exist, is a huge step in the right direction.

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