What should have been an extended victory celebration for the Democrats after a successful election night lasted just until President Trump got in front of a camera the following morning. Intended to be a traditional, post-election press conference, the presser turned into a performance that dominated the news cycle for days. Trump had reminded the world that American politics still orbits around him.
Another oddity: there seemed to be more excitement coming from the left on Monday night than on Wednesday morning after victory had been secured. Why such short-lived enthusiasm? Where did the progressive passion go?
The answer is that it drained out with the candidates who didn’t win.
Take Beto O’Rourke, a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Young liberals sported “Beto” shirts from Los Angeles to Brooklyn. Democrats fantasized over the prospect of a young, handsome Democrat with a Spanish nickname kicking conservative firebrand Ted Cruz out of the Senate in a safe red state.
Speaking in plain terms with powerful rhetoric and charisma, his campaign visited every county in Texas, striving to appeal with an unapologetically liberal message to moderate and conservative Texans who’ve never voted for a Democrat in their lives. Congressman O’Rourke drew massive crowds, regularly went viral on Twitter and Facebook, and received millions of dollars’ worth of earned media. Beto was the hottest Democrat since President Obama, and according to some, perhaps a potential successor. If the “blue wave” engulfed blood-red Texas, it could win anywhere.
Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams generated enthusiasm from the left as well. Both galvanized the progressive wings of their respective states, attracting the crowds and media attention required in campaign politics today, and most importantly both styled themselves as unapologetic progressives in the vein (and with the endorsement) of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Gillum and Abrams both faced extremely “Trumpian” opponents, so the outcomes of these races were thought to be something of a post-hoc proxy for an alternative-universe 2016: what might have happened had the Democrats put forward a charismatic progressive candidate against Trump instead of a damaged moderate?
In the end, just as Sanders lost his race, so have the other candidates that Democrats sorely needed for rebranding. With Trump still packing stadiums two years into his tumultuous presidency, why hasn’t the Democratic brand of enthusiasm been able to produce leaders that reflect its origin?
Progressive candidates in major elections who successfully built their own, positive brand — for whatever reason — haven’t been able to bring it home come election day. So, while the Democrats were able to keep pace with historical trends by flipping the House, they failed to elect a new generation of leaders the party is in desperate need of.
Furthermore, the Brett Kavanaugh saga turned out to be a colossal failure for Democrat branding as well. Young, progressive Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) saw his hearings as the perfect opportunity to springboard into the national spotlight, theatrically appealing directly to the progressive wing of the country. While the reputational measuring here is more difficult than with an election, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), the lone Democrat who voted in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, coasted easily to reelection in arguably the reddest state in America, while Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), both of whom opposed Kavanaugh, lost their reelection bids in swing states.
For perspective, Harris and Booker barely register as likely threats on most polls of likely 2020 Democratic primary voters.
Last Wednesday, Trump posted the following to Twitter: “In all fairness, Nancy Pelosi deserves to be chosen Speaker of the House by the Democrats. If they give her a hard time, perhaps we will add some Republican votes. She has earned this great honor!”
This is Trump at his absolute best. The president has no intention of letting the progressive wing of the Democratic Party push a fresh-faced, compelling unknown into the Speaker’s office. Trump wants (and intends on placing) Nancy Pelosi front-and-center where everyone can see her. And his point? Yesterday’s Democratic Party is the same as today’s. If there is one politician today not named Hillary Clinton that riles up the Republican base, while proving inversely uninspiring to her own, it would be a Democrat Speaker named Nancy Pelosi. If Pelosi does, as expected, regain the Speaker’s gavel, Democrats will have inarguably fallen right into Trump’s trap, and more importantly, failed to learn the lessons of 2016.
In many ways, Pelosi personifies exactly what has turned so much of Midwestern, middle-class America against the Democratic Party: A wealthy, coastal elite who can’t or refuses to understand how Trump won. Has Pelosi even met a Trump voter? That characterization may not be entirely fair to her. It probably isn’t, but optics in politics today are at least as important as truth.
So where does this leave the Democratic Party? Obama still seems to be the main show. And while he’s done some great work campaigning for the Democrats, U.S. presidents have a long history of receding to the background after their term. It’s hard to imagine Obama doing much more for the Democrats than he already has.
At least for now, the midterms have not bolstered their image from 2016. The Democrats have failed to heed their own diagnosis to rejuvenate their failed brand by embracing progressivism without sensible awareness of other facets of the party. Democrats’ 2020 prospects in this respect are no better than they were a week ago, even after winning the House and several governorships. Repeated micro-failures across the board to pivot in a manner that is broadly attractive to a wider swath of Americans has left the Democrat machine lumbering along at the same speed it did in 2015 and 2016, ultimately reactive and beholden to whatever Donald Trump’s next move is.
For the Democrats to truly rebrand from their disastrous 2016, they’ll have to elect more than just critics of the Trump administration. The party needs candidates who can build their own, positive brand that appeals to the most politically active on the grassroots level. During the Trump era, the Democratic candidates able to do this have been the most progressive, but they’ve largely been unable to win on election day. The diagnosis for the Democrats following their unexpected loss in 2016 was that they needed to regain touch with the moderate members of the party and America at-large. In 2020, it’s very likely they’ll end up over-scratching their “progressive itch” by embracing too closely the progressive wing, in platform and candidate alike. If fresh faces and bold ideas can’t win elections for the Democrats in 2018, where do they turn to restore their brand?
Alex Madison is a crisis communications expert specializing in the intersection of politics and industry at LEVICK, a global communications and public affairs agency located in downtown Washington D.C.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.