To paraphrase New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (with apologies), the less Republicans do in office, the more popular they generally become. That is, when the GOP exists solely in voters’ minds as a bulwark against cultural and political liberalism, it can cobble together a winning coalition. Likewise, Democrats regain the national trust when they serve only as an obstacle to Republican objectives. It’s when both parties begin to talk about what they want to do with their power that they get into trouble.
That is an over-simplification, but the core thesis is an astute one. In an age of negative partisanship and without an acute foreign or domestic crisis to focus the national mind, it’s not unreasonable to presume that both parties’ chief value is defined in negative terms by the public. Considering how little of the national dialogue has to do with policy these days, general principles and heuristics are probably how most marginal voters navigate the political environment.
Somewhere along the way, though, Democrats managed to convince themselves that they cannot just be the anti-Donald Trump party. Their most influential members have become convinced that the party needs to articulate a positive agenda beyond a set of vague principles. For the moment, Democrats who merely want to present themselves as unobjectionable alternatives to Trumpism without going into much broader detail appear to be losing the argument.
According to a study of campaign-season advertisements released on Friday by the USA Today Network and conducted by Kantar Media’s Campaign Marketing Analysis Group, Democrats are not leaning into their opposition to Trump. While over 44,000 pro-Trump advertisements from Republican candidates have aired on local broadcast networks, only about 20,000 Democratic ads have highlighted a candidate’s anti-Trump bona fides. “Trump has been mentioned in 27 [percent] of Democratic ads for Congress, overwhelmingly in a negative light,” the study revealed. In the same period during the 2014 midterm election cycle, by contrast, 60 percent of Republican advertisements featured President Barack Obama in a negative light.
There are plenty of caveats that should prevent observers from drawing too many broad conclusions about what this means. First, comparing the political environment in 2018 to 2014 is apples and oranges. Recall that 2014 was Barack Obama’s second midterm election, so naturally enthusiasm among the incumbent party’s base to rally to the president’s defense wanes while the “out-party’s” anxiety over the incumbent president grows. If Donald Trump’s job-approval rating is still anemic in September, it is reasonable to expect that Republican candidates will soft-peddle their support for the president just as Democrats did in 2010. Second, Democrats running against Democrats in a Democratic primary race may not feel the need to emphasize their opposition to the president, since that doesn’t create a stark enough contrast with their opponent.
And yet, the net effect of the primary season is the same. Democrats aren’t just informing voters of their opposition to how Trump and the Republican Party have managed the nation’s affairs; they’re describing what they would do differently. By and large, the Democratic Party’s agenda consists of “doubling” spending on social-welfare programs, education, and infrastructure, and promising a series of five-year-plan prestige projects. But Democratic candidates are also leaning heavily into divisive social issues.
The themes that Democratic ads have embraced so far range from support for new gun-control measures (“f*** the NRA,” was one New Mexico candidate’s message), to protecting public funding for Planned Parenthood, to promoting support for same-sex marriage rights, to attacking Sinclair Broadcasting (which happened to own the network on which that particular ad ran). A number of Democratic candidates are running on their support for a single-payer health-care system, including the progressive candidate in Nebraska’s GOP-leaning 2nd Congressional District who narrowly defeated an establishment-backed former House member this week, putting that seat farther out of the reach of Democrats in November.
In the end, messages like these animate the Democratic Party’s progressive base, but they have the potential to alienate swing voters. That may not be enough to overcome the electorate’s tendency to reward the “out-party” in a president’s first midterm election. And yet, the risk Democrats run by being specific about what they actually want to do with renewed political power cannot be dismissed. Democrats in the activist base are convinced that embracing conflict-ridden identity politics is a moral imperative, and the party’s establishmentarian leaders appear to believe that being anti-Trump is not enough to ensure the party’s success in November. All the while, the Democratic Party’s position in the polls continues to deteriorate.