A Measure of Hope

House Democrats Must Now Offer a Real Alternative
Voters cast midterm ballots in Brooklyn, New York (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

Many of us are suffering from a form of political PTSD, always on the verge of flashing back to the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, when it became clear that Donald Trump had won the presidency. In that moment, it also became clear that the polls and the experts were wrong. The usual rules of politics seemingly had been suspended; our instincts no longer could be trusted. Whether idiot savant or master strategist, Trump knew how to win, an inexorable force we could fear but not understand, and perhaps were powerless to stop.

Last night, like many, I certainly succumbed to this. When the early results of the midterm elections first flashed on the screen, I had that sinking feeling. It was happening again. Because the region where the Democrats performed the worst—the Southeast—was where many of the first returns came from, I thought we’d be in for a long and devastating night. Trump had triumphed again. The unhinged rallies hadn’t hurt him; the outlandishly xenophobic “caravan” paranoia he stoked hadn’t hurt him; the incitement of the darkest forces in our national life hadn’t hurt him. Just the opposite: those would be what propelled the GOP to victory. We were doomed.

But as we now know, that’s not what happened. Democrats decisively took back the House of Representatives, powered by a diverse set of candidates that included a record number of women. At last count, they’ll hold around 230 seats and will have won the national popular vote by a projected nine points. It’s true that Republicans extended their own majority in the Senate, now holding fifty-three seats—but that had much to do with a favorable map, the number of rural states in play. No one seriously thought there’d be a Senate Majority Leader Schumer come January. And even amidst the disappointing Senate results, Democratic candidates in those races won around ten million more votes than Republican candidates did.

Make the GOP own their callous disregard for the sick and the struggling. Make them own their white supremacy. Make them own minority rule. Make the GOP own their slavish devotion to the rich. And then bludgeon them with these issues in 2020.

In the days to come, these numbers might shift slightly, as mail-in ballots are counted, close races are finally called, and exit polls are sliced and diced. But there are a few takeaways worth emphasizing now. The most important is that Trump actually is not that popular—his approval rating hovers in the low 40s, despite a humming economy—and neither is the GOP. Most Americans do not support them. That is, the overwhelming fact of American political life right now is that for the last two years, we’ve been subjected to what amounts to minority rule. Trump is not a political genius, but he and his party are the beneficiaries of a thoroughly undemocratic political system, and it took an overwhelming majority of the votes in the midterm elections for Democrats to finally reclaim a foothold of institutional power. It’s telling that in places like Pennsylvania, where the judiciary had redrawn what were grotesquely gerrymandered congressional districts, Democrats made significant gains. In places like Georgia, where the GOP controlled the electoral process—the brashly racist Secretary of State Brian Kemp was running for governor—Democrats came up short amidst complaints of long voting lines, broken voting machines, and attempts at voter suppression and disenfranchisement, mostly of minority voters.

This is why one of the most heartening results from last night was the overwhelming passage of Amendment Four in Florida, which will automatically restore the voting rights of more than a million felons who have completed their sentences. Both Andrew Gillum, an African American who was running for governor, and Bill Nelson, who was trying to hold onto his Senate seat, lost there last night—but the races were close. Amendment Four could make the difference in 2020, when Florida once again will be a battleground state. Similarly, Michigan voters passed Proposal Two, the “Voters Not Politicians” initiative, which will create a thirteen-member independent citizens' redistricting commission to undo gerrymandered congressional districts in that state. These are signs of hope that the underlying structural issues that tilt elections toward Republicans are being recognized and addressed. More of this, please.

While Beto O’Rourke, the young congressman who ran an insurgent progressive campaign to take Ted Cruz’s senate seat, narrowly lost in Texas, he showed that tacking toward the center is not the best way for Democrats to make inroads in red states. Sherrod Brown, a populist Democrat, cruised to victory in Ohio, a state Trump won by eight points. But Joe Donnelly was crushed in Indiana, as was Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Donnelly had campaigned on his support for a border wall, and his ads featured both Trump and Ronald Reagan in them. “I don’t serve as a Democrat senator or a Republican senator,” he’d said. Well, now he’s not serving as a senator at all. And neither is McCaskill, who promised voters she was not one of those “crazy” Democrats. It turns out you can’t out-racist the GOP, can’t simply try to assuage Republican fear-mongering; once voters have tasted the good stuff, the pure, undiluted Trumpism, they won’t settle for anything less than the real thing. You have to change terms of the debate, offer a bold alternative, and promise to deliver the material help that the plutocratic Republicans never will. It’s notable that while McCaskill lost in Missouri, voters there voted to raise the minimum wage, as they did in Arkansas.

Healthcare deserves special attention here: ballot measures that expanded Medicaid were passed in three red—very red—states: Utah, Nebraska, and Idaho. Now, hundreds of thousands of people will have healthcare who didn’t have it before. Though exit polls can be unreliable, healthcare was the most pressing concern, the top issue, for a plurality of voters in the midterms, surpassing both immigration and the economy.

That was why, once it was clear Democrats had taken back the House, Nancy Pelosi’s “victory” speech was so depressing. It’s true that, with Republicans controlling the Senate and presidency, it’s unlikely progressive legislation will actually become law during the next two years. But instead of coming out with a real message, a set of promises of what Democrats would fight for, she offered vague platitudes about “transparency” and lowering the costs of healthcare, not proclaiming it a right, all while prattling on about the election being about “the children.” Most bizarrely, she invoked a “bipartisan marketplace of ideas,” whatever that means. This was a missed opportunity. House Democrats don’t need bipartisanship. They need to call a series of votes that serve as markers, forcing Republicans to be on the record against Medicare-for-All, a full package of voting rights and electoral reforms, a real infrastructure package, and an economic program that works for the many, not the few. Make the GOP own their callous disregard for the sick and the struggling. Make them own their white supremacy. Make them own minority rule. Make the GOP own their slavish devotion to the rich. And then bludgeon them with these issues in 2020.

Published in the December 1, 2018 issue: 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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