Democrats are celebrating an election victory on Tuesday, as they flipped the House of Representatives and now have the opportunity to at least create gridlock and obstruction, slowing the momentum and agenda of a Republican administration that has received global criticism. That success extended to the state level, with seven state legislatures flipping from red to blue. None of the election’s Democratic superstars, most notably Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, won their election races. However, there is also a certain unease among Democrats. This election was billed as a referendum on a controversial President who has at times been one of the most unpopular leaders in U.S. history, yet Democrats lost four seats in the Senate while none of the election’s Democratic superstars, most notably Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, won their election races. Despite their election victories, Democrats are left to ponder why the gains were not greater.
The reason, according to The Guardian, is that Democrats lost focus on their greatest opportunity to unseat Republicans. The Democratic agenda was focused on the most progressive issues that rallied the base, trying to ignite a widespread rally to build the “blue wave” by pushing the progressive agenda as boldly as their opponents push the Republican agenda. Unfortunately, the midterm election results suggest that the rally to the left strategy employed by the Democrats is not a winning formula. O’Rourke is an excellent example.
O’Rourke’s platform spoke clearly and unequivocally about progressive stances such as socialized medicine, disbanding ICE, the impeachment of Donald Trump, and supporting social minorities. He spoke passionately, with magnetic energy and enthusiasm, and cast himself as a uniter. Yet for moderate and conservative voters, O’Rourke’s infectious personality was not enough to sway them, because he was focused on the wrong issues.
Sometimes, you have to go back to the future.
At the turn of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt became arguably the greatest progressive reformer in U.S. history. Roosevelt attacked American monopolies to break them apart, taking on the most powerful men in America. He sought to force snake oil salesmen and immoral meat packers to clean up their act or risk being put out of business. He completely changed the landscape of the American government, and in doing so changed the relationship between the federal government and the American people.
The federal government (and local government, for that matter) in the late 19th century had gained a reputation as corrupt. The patronage system allowed government officials to appoint their friends and relatives to lucrative government offices that they were unqualified to perform, while political machines openly exchanged money for favorable political policy from those in office. Americans had the sense that their government didn’t care about them. During the Depression of 1893, U.S. President Grover Cleveland told the American people they were on their own. They were.
Roosevelt changed all of this by reforming the government. By addressing the social ills of the people, he sent a message to Americans that his government was there for them, and in doing so became one of the most popular political candidates in American history.
Here is the opportunity that O’Rourke and the Democrats missed. Americans want a government that works for them. They want a government that they can trust. Americans are largely divided on values, and those values run the entire spectrum between both extremes. Yet the vast majority of Americans believe that our current federal government looks a lot like the one operating before the likes of Chester A. Arthur and Teddy Roosevelt reformed it. Even the fundamental basis of conservative values is limited government because they don’t trust the government. Americans want reform, and the lack of a reform agenda limited the gains that Democrats might have made in this election.
Consider the parallel campaigns of O’Rourke and South Dakota gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton. Both candidates lost in a red state by fairly slim margins. However, as conservative as Texas is, South Dakota is far more conservative. Donald Trump won South Dakota by 30 points in 2016. He won Texas by nine. Sutton made up much more ground.
Both candidates actually began their runs on a platform of reform. O’Rourke proudly eschewed financing from PACs, relying instead on individual to fund his campaign. And they did. By the end of the election, O’Rourke had raised more money than any candidate in Senate electoral history. Sutton cast himself as a reformer, eager to bring the South Dakota government closer to the will of the people.
However, from there they diverted. O’Rourke pushed the unabashedly progressive agenda of the Democratic Party, while Sutton focused on reforming a corrupt state legislature. Sutton even eschewed some progressive principles such as gun control and abortion, keeping his focus on what the citizens of South Dakota needed from its state government. In the end, Sutton captured a greater percentage share of flipped voters by campaigning for what his people needed: reform.
For O’Rourke, the challenge became to convince Texans to try something different. His message spoke to progressives, but left moderates and conservatives doubtful. For those voters who so often had voted Republican in past elections, O’Rourke was asking them to consider the possibility that they were wrong. So when Ted Cruz attacked O’Rourke that his values “are just not Texas,” O’Rourke had to concede the point.
For Sutton, liberals and conservatives alike could be united in their need for government reform. They were the unwilling victims of a corrupt state government that Sutton wanted to change. It was a platform that worked for everyone, and it nearly won Sutton the election.
It is a platform that Democrats — and perhaps even O’Rourke, should he make a Presidential run — should start laying the groundwork for and promote leading up to the 2020 election. Only then might they have the great “blue wave” that they so covet.