In the most recent Washington Post public opinion poll, only a little over a third of the respondents (36 percent) approve of the job President Donald Trump is doing. This is the lowest rating for any president, roughly six months into the job, since polling began. It’s historically dismal, in other words. But while this is good news for the Democratic Party looking towards the midterm 2018 elections, there was one other poll question that should have them at least a little worried. When asked if Democrats “stand for something” or “just stand against Trump,” only 37 percent responded that the Democratic Party stood for something. A whopping 52 percent said the party is now solely defined by their opposition to Trump.
Is this a problem, or not? It’s hard to say, really, even though at first glance it does seem rather problematic. However, there was no breakdown of responses other than dividing them between registered voters and those not registered. Without a party-line breakdown, it’s impossible to say whether this news is good, bad, or even terrible for Democrats.
Angry opposition can indeed actually be a good thing in midterm elections. The Tea Party rode a very successful wave of anger and obstructionism, two years after the election of Barack Obama. Republicans had no real new answers to any of the nation’s problems in 2010 and 2014, but they were extremely successful at the ballot box. Can Democrats replicate this success? Whatever the answer, it’s not automatically a bad thing (in terms of electoral chances) if the public sees you solely in opposition to the president — especially when that president has incredibly low ratings himself. Obama had only fallen to roughly 45 percent job approval by the 2010 midterms, and look how many congressional seats he lost. So the public seeing the party as simply against Trump’s agenda doesn’t automatically mean bad news for Democrats on Election Day. Anger and a desire to see a president’s agenda stopped can indeed win the day.
Part of the problem of figuring out the meaning of poll questions like this is that without followup questions you have no way of knowing how the respondents really feel about the subject. Of the 52 percent who say Democrats are just against Trump, how many think that’s a good thing and how many think it’s a bad thing? Looking at the other side, just because a voter thinks Democrats stand for something doesn’t mean they agree with that agenda. Interpreting what the numbers mean almost requires you to make assumptions that might not be true at all, in other words. Which is why it would have been more helpful to see the answers broken down by party (Democrat, Republican, independent).
Even having said all of this, Democratic strategists should probably be at least a bit concerned that the majority of the voters don’t think the party stands for anything. This brings up the whole “Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton” divide once again. Many of Bernie’s supporters loved him because he did strongly stand for something. Many also had problems with Hillary Clinton because of a perception that she was too timid in laying out an agenda. This rift in the ranks of Democrats has not fully healed — not by a longshot. Progressives have been pushing the party to be more bold, but the party’s establishment has been reluctant to appear “too radical.” The best example of this schism is which Democrats are now voicing their support for single-payer healthcare, as opposed to those who see it as a step too far.
The argument over how bold a stance to take (and not just on healthcare) is currently taking place within the Democratic caucus in Congress. The 2018 midterms are still over a year away, and Democrats right now are trying to hammer together a solid agenda they can all run on. They’re keeping their cards pretty close to the vest right now, but have said they’re within weeks of rolling their new agenda out to the public. This is all to the good. The fact that these things are being seriously discussed in an effort to achieve consensus now means Democrats are already aware they need to stand up for something soon. So we’ll see how bold the agenda items actually turn out to be when they do roll it out.
Getting the party behind a solid agenda — and creating some good messaging to communicate it well and easily — could change the public’s perception of the party in a big way over the next six months or so. Perhaps by the end of the year, those poll numbers will have reversed, to put this another way.
Democrats may have an excellent opportunity to prove they’re serious about moving the country forward within the next few weeks. If the McConnell healthcare bill fails, then Democrats should already have their priorities set on negotiating a compromise with Republicans. They should have a solid list of things they want, and another list of things that are complete deal-breakers. They should be ready to talk about these priorities and define them clearly to the public the moment the Republicans fail.
It’s easy enough to see what should be on these lists. The more important one will be the deal-breakers, of course, because drawing these lines in the sand from the get-go will send a clear message to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan as to what Democrats can not accept. First and foremost on the list will be: “Any talk of this being a ‘repeal Obamacare bill’ will absolutely kill your chances of getting any Democrat to vote for it.” End the partisan rhetoric, and sit down with us to fix what is truly problematic, in other words. Other items on this list should include: Medicaid will not be turned into a block grant program; Medicaid expansion will continue; Planned Parenthood will not be defunded; insurers will not be able to turn away people with pre-existing conditions; and there will be no tax cuts for the very wealthy. Period. Any bill with anything even resembling these things is dead as a dodo.
The Democratic list of their own priorities can be a lot more flexible. Some room for negotiation should be maintained, in other words. But Democrats should — at the very least — have this list compiled and ready to go. “Here’s what we want to do” is a much better bargaining position than: “I guess we should figure this out, huh?”
Up until this point, Democrats have been happy to sit back and watch Republicans flail. Ryan and McConnell have produced legislation that (not unlike President Trump) is historically less popular than any other bill ever polled over the past three or four decades. And now it looks like it’ll fail to even get enough Republican support to make it through Congress. When your political opponent is shooting himself in the foot, sometimes the only thing you can do is politely offer to hold his coat and then stand back and watch. But that time will be at an end if the Senate can’t pass McConnell’s bill.
Democrats should be completely prepared to step into the breach, and should do so almost immediately after the bill fails. They really should get their message out — “We want to fix Obamacare, and here’s how we will do it” — before the August recess, in order to be prepared to hammer the message as hard as possible once they return to their home states. “Republicans tried and failed to destroy Obamacare and Medicaid — we want to fix them and defend them instead,” works a lot better than just bragging about how dysfunctional the Republican-led Congress is.
In other words, Democrats need to stand for something, not just against Trump and his destructive agenda. The healthcare battle will be an early test of the Democratic Party’s ability to prove they have better ideas for governing than Republicans, and as such will be an early indicator of how successful Democrats can be in defining themselves with a positive overall agenda. If Chuck Schumer can propose a bill to fix Obamacare rather than repealing it — immediately after the McConnell bill fails — it would be a big step towards convincing the public that Democrats do indeed stand for something. However, if Democrats are disorganized and split and have no alternate bill ready to offer, it will show that the only thing that unites them is opposition to Trump and the Republican agenda. In other words, if the McConnell bill fails to pass the Senate, how Democrats then react is either going to confirm the public’s perception of them, or be the first big step on the path to changing that perception for the better.
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