Let’s say you’re a serious football fan and have rooted for your favorite team most of your adult life. They’re heading to the conference finals again, two years after suffering a shocking loss in the Super Bowl to an underdog led by an inexperienced, erratic quarterback. While still reeling from that upset, you’re confident that the tide has turned.
But after being up two touchdowns and a field goal in the third quarter against the same opponent, the lead is now down to a single TD. The other team’s field general seems to be doing everything he can to throw the game away (see Putin pep rally, tariff battles and Michael Cohen instant replay), but with a history of losing what seemed like sure wins, in the back of your mind you have to wonder: “are we going to blow it again?!”
This team is the Democratic Party heading into the midterm elections. In February, they held a 16-point lead in generic polls asking which party should control Congress, rolling along towards a “blue wave” victory. Yet despite an administration with a scandal roster that has to be updated daily, the continuing estrangement of our long-term allies, late hits on our trading partners, and a gridlocked GOP majority Congress that has accomplished little except a tax bill pretty much written by corporations and wealthy individuals, a big win for the Democrats is far from assured.
Generic polls now show the Dems lead down to 7 points while the president’s approval rating has gone from 35% in December 2017 up to 42% today. And 90 % of all Republicans still support Team Trump. Yes, 90%! With gerrymandering and the number of “safe” Republican-leaning Congressional districts at stake, the wave may be more of a squeaker than a blowout in the House, with the Senate being an even a heavier lift for Democrats.
Still, it seems that the Dems should have this game locked up. President Trump’s disastrous press conference in Russia was unquestionably the most incomprehensibly blown play in his Hall of Shame tour of Europe. By blatantly ignoring the advice of his coaching staff and committing a personal foul against America’s intelligence community, he blindsided his own party and put their franchise in a lose/lose situation. Even members of his offensive line were left wondering whose side he’s actually on.
A possible Michael Cohen turnover could also be a potential game changer, leading to a big hit by special team standout Robert Mueller. But Trump has slipped tackles before as he impulsively reverses field like a schizophrenic running back. If the president’s base remains unaffected by his miscues, one has to wonder whether the forward lateral to Putin, the fallout from a trade war or Cohen’s lowlights reel will actually change the final score in November. Truth be told, the Democrats are a long way from any high fives.
So, what can be done? First, Democrats have a huge window to talk about economic issues. But thus far, they don’t have a message that will resonate with the bread-and-butter working-class, such as the 20% of voters in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania who had voted for Barack Obama, and then went for Trump. Meanwhile, the president is great on focusing on identity politics and the white part of working-class whites, especially those that have been left behind in the global economy. Democrats must reach out to Trump voters in the states that he won by a narrow margin and focus on pocketbook issues like health care, education and how much of that monstrosity of a tax bill will actually be foisted on them. If they can talk to them about these kitchen-table issues that affect their lives, then they have a chance.
Second, I don’t think the Democrats have learned from the absence of a cohesive message in 2016, other than running against Trump. If that’s the case, history can certainly repeat itself. I recently interviewed Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, about the lack of a unified platform from the Democrats. As someone who lives, eats and breathes politics (he likens himself to a rabid sports fan), Matthews sees a similar disconnect with the American public.
“Unfortunately, the Democratic Party hasn’t changed an iota since it lost in ’16. I don’t see any new leaders. I don’t hear anything new about infrastructure or a different kind of tax policy. I don’t know what the Democrats’ immigration policy is. I don’t know what their trade policy is. They think that they can win just being against Trump and I think that is going be to a mistake.”
“People have to know where you stand and if you have to come out with a platform, that means you don’t have one,” says Matthews. “We know where Trump stands and he’s got his finger on the pulse of about 40 percent of the country. The anger of a lot of Americans toward the establishment is so strong that all he has to do is keep reminding people that he’s running against Washington.”
Third, the Republican National Committee continues to build its campaign war chest, which is currently at $199 million, while the DNC has just $101 million. When campaigns come close to the election, the ability to buy television time is a crucial factor. Michael Bloomberg may help neutralize this gap of almost a $100 million with a recent pledge of $80 million. Democratic supporters such as George Soros and Tom Steyer are also spending tens of millions, but they operate independently and push their own favorite causes rather than support traditional party funding.
Fourth, threats to impeach the president may actually work in the Republicans favor. The right wing of the GOP seeks to motivate conservative voters by insisting that a Democratic House will immediately move to impeach President Trump. Not only is that unlikely (unless Mueller releases a report with verifiable criminal charges), it ignores the fact that the House can vote to indict, but only the Senate has the power to convict. With 67 votes needed to remove the president from office, even if the Democrats won all 35 Senate seats up in 2018, they would still need 14 Republicans to vote for the removal of a sitting president. Las Vegas bookmakers would make those very long odds, at best.
Democrats face some other serious obstacles in the midterms that leave the outcome in doubt. In addition to lacking a cohesive game plan, there are intra-squad squabbles over leadership in the House, as well as whether to run the ball up the middle or go left. Without a smoking gun, even a Hail Mary pass from the Mueller investigation may fall short. And with a second seat on the Supreme Court in play over the summer, GOP supporters will be even more energized to hop on the bandwagon.
Despite having a quarterback in the White House who is often his team’s biggest nightmare, the 2018 election will ultimately rest on fan attendance and support. Unless Democrats can turn out a massive rally of motivated voters, the Republican Party may turn simply maintaining the status quo into a stunning upset.