Stop Treating the Republicans Like Buffoons; It’s Not a Winning Strategy

I was just listening to the talking heads on MSNBC (tuned in late, so I didn’t hear who they were). They exemplified for me, yet again, why the Democratic Party can have more registered voters, can even win elections, and still manage to be its own worst enemy.

The talking heads today were laughing about the Republican Party. In their view, the Republican Party doesn’t stand for anything, so it can’t possibly attract enough votes to win anything. One of them said “I think the Republican Party is going to have to be spanked again — they’re probably going to lose 25 seats in the election of 2022, reversing all historical trends for presidents losing seats in the midterm — before they wake up and realize they don’t stand for anything, and that they have to get rid of Donald Trump.”

And why did this catch my ear? Because I’ve been hearing dyed-in-the-wool Democrats say exactly the same thing for two decades. A political reporter friend of mine, twenty years ago, told me that the Republican Party was dying and would soon be dead. “Look at the last presidential elections,” he said to me then, in the aftermath of the election of 2000. “The last time the Republicans won a majority of the popular vote was in 1988. They’re dying.” It’s now five elections farther on. The Republican candidate won a majority of the popular vote only once more, in 2004. And yet there has been a Republican in the White House 60% of the time since he told me the party was dying.

It goes farther. We’ve had ten Congresses since the election of 2000, twenty years. In that time, the Senate had a Democratic majority for five Congresses, ten years, half the time, and a Republican majority the other half of the time. In the House of Representatives, there was a Democratic majority for only three Congresses, six years; the Republicans held the majority seventy percent of the time. And in this most recent election, which the staunch Democrats hail as a victory in retaking the Senate, look a little deeper. Consider the popular votes for each of the contested Senate seats in the elections of 2020. You may be as surprised as I was that the popular vote totals in all those elections combined are pretty darn close to 50–50, Republican and Democrat. The 50 Republicans in the Senate are not merely an artifact of two Senators per state regardless of size. There really are almost as many people voting for Republicans as for Democrats. And yes, I know, I’m playing with data. Of the four most populous states, only one had a Senate seat up for election in 2020. But my point remains: laughing off the Republicans is not a winning strategy.

Consider the election of 2016. How did the Republican candidate win the presidency? He won because the Democratic presidential campaign got complacent. They decided the goal was to run up the popular vote total, rather than remembering the rules of the game. Whether you like it or not, we have an electoral college, and the way to be elected President is to win the electoral college. That’s what the Republicans did in 2016.

Yes, the Republicans are acting like both thugs and buffoons. Their massive campaign to make it more difficult to vote is thuggish behavior of the most transparent and abhorrent sort. And their refusal to even adopt a campaign platform for the election of 2020 shows what a joke the party’s leaders think their party has become, that instead of publicly standing for issues, they’ll simply follow their chosen god-figure.

But if the Democrats are serious about enacting good, long-lasting changes, making things better for us all, they’re going to have to do far more than laugh at the Republican Party and demonize its chosen leaders. They’re going to have to be serious, they’re going to have to win over the undecided, middle-of-the-political-spectrum voters who hold our noses each time we vote for a Republican or a Democrat. I’m still ashamed to admit I voted against Donald Trump, rather than for Joe Biden, but both parties are most effective at pushing me toward the other, rather than drawing me to themselves.

And while President Biden does seem to be talking the talk, he’s going to have to get the rest of his supporting cast on board. The laugh fest I saw today is emblematic of one of the Democrats’ main problems. I may agree with them, that Donald Trump is a jerk and Mitch McConnell is a liar, but repeating that is not a reason that will convince voters to go for the Democrat in 2022 or 2024. And they’d better not be deluding themselves that “anyone who thinks can see that.” It’s like commercials advertising the “best-selling whatever”: popularity is not a rational reason to buy something, but people do it because they want to be associated with the winner. Donald Trump is a schmuck, but he presents himself — and a lot of people seem him — as a winner. The Democrats are not going to be able to tear that down with their laughter (though Trump may do it to himself); they’re going to need to show that they are effective winners.

And now, as I’ve finished writing this, MSNBC is starting its 5 o’clock program talking about “A GOP that has gutted itself,” pointing to their loss of the Senate and the White House. Those talking heads are delusional.

Cannibalistic Democrats

The Democratic Party is twice again looking like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They spent the last four years seething about President Trump, trying to get together to put themselves back into a position of power. Now that they have control of the White House and the Senate, they are again trying to do to themselves what the Republican Party wants to do to them.

The “progressives” are threatening their party’s fragile majority because they can’t get everything they want right this minute in this one bill (the $15 an hour minimum wage doesn’t fit in the Covid relief bill). They have a majority of ten of votes in the House, and absolutely no majority in the Senate. But it seems they’d rather let the minority Republicans rule the roost than compromise amongst themselves to enact legislation that we need right now.

And on a smaller level, they’re already calling for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign because he’s been accused of sexual impropriety. Not convicted, not even investigated, just accused. But leading Democrats are already lining up to get him out right now (see, for example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

[Edited four hours later to note that de Blasio and Ocasio-Cortez may have spoken against him, but apparently Representative Kathleen Rice (a Democrat) is the first to formally call for Cuomo’s resignation.]

The Trump Party demands total fealty to their chosen god-figure, but the Democrats demand absolute political purity. The Trumps may run alternate candidates in primary fights to punish those party members who don’t kowtow properly, but then they’ll support whichever candidate gets the Republican label. The Democrats, on the other hand, are quite willing to throw out a current office-holder who might not measure up to absolutely every mark on the list. They appear to be willing to derail Covid relief and all of President Biden’s agenda if they don’t get their way right this very instant.

Earlier, I wrote about the need for the parties to be stronger. The Republicans have shown they are unable to control rampaging lunatics within their ranks. The Democrats, on the other hand, are so focused on destroying of any of their own members who aren’t absolutely pure to the cause (even those who are good, effective leaders, like Cuomo today and Al Franken three years ago), that they’re willing to do the Republicans’ dirty work for them.

Somebody is going to have to teach these baby progressives that government, and politics in general, is not “give me what I want or I’m going to hold my breath until I turn blue.” Governing and politics is negotiation: it’s staking out a position of what you want, while knowing you’re not going to get it all, and then trying to come up with the best possible deal while recognizing that the person on the other side of the table wants something and has to get something, too. Sure, the Republicans haven’t been very good at negotiating either (see Mitch McConnell’s “leadership” over the last five years), but none of his Republicans ever said “give me what I want or I’m going to side with the Democrats.”

In an ideal world, everyone would be angels and bear not even a hint of besmirchment. In the real world, we sometimes have to accept that people have flaws. We have to seek the best possible results, even if it means getting our feet dirty on the way there. Instead, we’re dealing with Democrats who seem to care more for clean feet today than the long-term good they could be doing.

Thanks for reading. Writerly payments gratefully accepted: paypal.me/IanRandalStrock .

Parties Need to be Strengthened

Fareed Zakaria has an interesting take on the Republican Party (which in my mind also covers the Democrats), and its seeming inability to “control its extremists.” I just heard him on his weekly CNN program, but you can see a recording of it here: https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2021/02/21/exp-gps-0221-fareeds-take.cnn .

My take-away from it is that the political parties in the US have gotten too weak. They’ve lost the ability to purge radical voices from their ranks, which in turn gives those radical voices a place to enact their insane desires to tear down the civility of the country, to destroy our ability to work together for the betterment of all.

I don’t know if there’s an easy solution to this problem. It seems to be a side-effect of the information age. Political parties, way back when, had all the power, because they chose the candidates, and in most cases (other than local elections), voters knew nothing about the candidates on the ballot except for their party affiliation. Thus, the party was supremely important in determining who a voter would support, and in a candidate getting elected.

But in the era in which anyone interested in running for office can reach out to millions of potential voters without even choosing a political label, and when such a candidate can then run rampant over the party loyalists (a result of the move from nominating conventions to open primaries), the only check on a whack-job’s candidacy is if the other candidates can whip up an even larger, more fervid base. That’s good for a laissez-faire attitude, but bad for anyone hoping for any accountability or high-mindedness in their candidates.

So why do we need party labels at all, if these random non-party nuts can hijack the parties? We need them because our two major parties have spent the last two centuries ensuring that they maintain dominance. If you want to be on a ballot, you have to collect a lot of signatures in a very precise fashion in a limited window of time, and you have to do it in each state in which you want to run. Or you can just get the nomination of one of the major parties, and you’re automatically on the ballot nationwide.

To bring this back to Fareed’s and my original point, I think the parties need to grow back their moral backbones. They need to be able to say “No, we don’t care if you show up with this rabid horde of extremists. We don’t care if you can raise a ton of money from those eager to prove they are more radical then anyone. We as a party stand for certain ideals, including good, inclusive government, and your extremist rhetoric is not welcome here.” I’m not really sure how we can do that. All I know is that letting those at the extreme edges of the parties gain more and more control is not the path to a good future.

When I was in college, Professor Levin talked about the American system of government. Of how, in a two-party system, the way to win (or so we all thought) was to get as close as possible to the middle of the political spectrum. The theory was that those at the outer edges are going to vote for their party regardless of who the candidate is, because they don’t want the other party (which is even farther from their views) to win. So the purpose of a campaign is to convince the undecided middle to vote for you, rather than the other party.

But we seem to have overturned that political theory in the last several elections. I don’t know if it’s the rise of money in politics, or if it’s a result of the unrelenting narrative that the government can’t or won’t do anything (an attempt to dishearten the center from voting, so that the outer edges can wield greater power). We find ourselves in a country where, if you’re not with me, you’re my enemy, rather than simply a neighbor with a different opinion. And we need to say “no, that’s wrong. We can both want the best for all and have well-reasoned opinions, and still disagree with each other. And even when we disagree, we can still hang out together and enjoy each other’s company.”

I started this piece quoting Fareed Zakaria talking about the Republican Party, but I don’t think that’s correct anymore. I think the insurrectionists, the loudest voices, those threatening the stability of the government, should properly be labeled the Trumpian Party. I think the Republican Party has all but disappeared into the Trumpian. Which is not to say that the Democratic Party is blameless and healthy. It, too, is suffering from the rise of its own extremists. But their demands for political purity (the reason Senator Al Franken was forced to resign, for example) mean that their radicalization will take longer to wreak its own brand of havoc.

It’s galling for me to say this, because I’ve always been passionately anti-party. In part, that was because none of the major parties completely echo my own views, but in part, it was due to my own form of idealism. I liked to think that allowing all candidates equal ballot access would give we the voters the greatest selection of choice, and that we would then choose the best people. But as we’ve seen recently, reality doesn’t always mesh with my ideal world. And people, by and large, are more venal and selfish than altruistic and high-minded. I’m still a rational anarchist, but that particular political philosophy does not seem to work well with human beings as we are currently constituted.

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