Writing in the New York Times today, the better version of David Brooks, the conservative Ross Douthat (who replaced the miserable Bill Kristol in 2009), has asked Democrats to move rightward since, you know, they lost the election:
This is an interesting and fruitful debate (my own outsider’s contribution can be found here), but it has been mostly about a debate about two different ways of being (sometimes very) left-wing. There has been much less conversation about the ways in which the Democratic Party might consider responding to its current straits by moving to the right.
This is pretty typical. When Democrats lose, right-wingers (and even liberal and left-wing pundits) come out the woodwork to tell them they’d better come closer to the right or they’ll never win another election, but when they win (think of the gains made in 2008), they’re told they need to reach across the aisle and be friendly to their Republican counterparts. Please.
That kind of movement is often part of how political parties recover from debilitation and defeat — not just by finding new ways to be true to their underlying ideology, but by scrambling toward the center to convince skeptical voters that they’ve changed. It’s what Democrats did, slowly but surely, after the trauma of Ronald Reagan’s triumphs; it’s what Bill Clinton did after his 1994 drubbing; it’s what Rahm Emanuel and Howard Dean did, to a modest degree, on their way to building a congressional majority in 2006. And it’s also what Donald Trump did on his way to stealing the Midwest from the Democrats this year — he was a hard-right candidate on certain issues but a radical sort of centrist on trade, infrastructure and entitlements, explicitly breaking with Republican orthodoxies that many voters considered out-of-date.
So as the Republican party as drifted ever more rightward, the Democrats continue to be a few steps behind. But as Douthat points out, the Democrats have become in some ways much more centrist or even downright conservative over the years. Their virtual abandonment of labor is a perfect example. But I don’t know what Ross is talking about—or what anyone’s talking about—when they talk about Democrats needing to reach centrist voters.
I’ll go ahead and call the 2018 midterms a wash. Unless Trump and the Republicans are such a disaster that even some fervent R supporters who regularly vote at midterms stay home or, even less likely, vote Democrat, the Dems don’t have a chance. They can never turn out voters in midterms. I don’t know how they overcome that.
But this election was a geographical loss, not a voter loss. Democrats got 45 million senate votes to the Republicans’ 39 million, but because the midwest and a lot of the south are reliably red and likely to stay that way, it’s harder to get a good edge in the senate. Even with that 6 million vote lead, Dems only picked up a few seats, with Republicans retaining a (slight) majority. Regarding the House of Representatives, despite a 61.5 million to 58 million vote count between Republicans and Democrats, Dems picked up six seats. It’s still underwhelming—they have 194 seats to the Republicans’ 241. And do I need to remind anyone that Hillary Clinton’s lead is now sitting at 2.5 million votes over Donald Trump?
So if all this talk about how Hillary Clinton was such a terrible candidate that she’s the cause for the Democrats’ loss, and yet they got far more votes in the senate and presidential race than Republicans anyway, it makes more sense for the Democrats to move more to the left. I don’t know whether Sanders would have won (more on that probably tomorrow), but we heard all the time during the primary that he was reaching the white working class (whatever that non-existent demographic is), a class that pundits like Douthat are now telling us Democrats have to reach out to. They don’t need to move to the right to do that. They just have to double down on more leftist labor initiatives—like unions, for example—to get their attention.
It seems more to me like the Republicans need to work to keep the voters they happened to pick up this time around. The coalition between the far-right Trumpistas and establishment Republicans looks more fragile than anything happening to Democrats at the moment.