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.