The newly activated Democratic base — the resistance! — was tripping over itself for a fight. Their money arrived down South by the truckload. The Republican President’s approval ratings are in the tank. And yet, another Election Day is gone, and Democrats are again asking where it all went wrong.
By late Tuesday night, the answers were rolling in. Prominently mixed into this dog’s breakfast of recriminations, mostly from the party’s activist left, there is at least one recurring thread: Democrats do not have, either by omission or commission, a cohesive economic message. Operatives and consultants peddle tactics, electoral “paths” to power, but after eight years of riding President Barack Obama, mistaking his talents for their own, the brain trust is unable to drive the party.
Still, as it relates to Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a number of caveats apply. Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old former congressional staffer and documentary filmmaker, entered the race facing long odds. No Democrat had won the seat in his lifetime. Hillary Clinton came close to nicking the vote there from Donald Trump last November, but fell short. Tom Price, whose departure to join the Trump administration set off the months-long contest, won re-election a little more than six months ago by more than 20 points. Ossoff, despite losing, ate substantially into that margin.
A long time coming
Progressives do not contest this point. No one — at least that I’ve spoken to in the past 12 hours — suggested that the race was a forsaken gimme. Bouncing the GOP from this affluent Atlanta suburb was always going to require a good, late break. But while Karen Handel’s victory predictably sent Democrats back to their respective corners, prior assumptions confirmed, it has not, of yet, precipitated more than a few notes of discord from the party establishment.
And for the left flank of activists, that’s a problem. For now and going forward into 2018 and beyond.
Most of the more prominent progressive objections look back further than the beginning of this race. Ossoff’s particular strategic failures or flawed messaging were panned, but the most convincing criticism has been trained on the institutional aimlessness that guided him. This analysis by some progressives questions the fundamental assumption that Georgia’s sixth was a national bellwether, instead presenting it as a lagging indicator of Democratic rot.
Not that Ossoff isn’t catching his share of the blame. He ran, as much as anything else, as a Democratic cipher and seemed, in interviews and public appearances, to be physically straining himself to avoid any contentious comments. Disinclined to define himself, Handel and the Republicans wisely lashed him to a muddling party. (Hence the resurgence of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, more than seven years’ removed from the speakership, as the chosen bogeyman. She at least represents something.)
“Until we take a risk as a party in offering a bold economic platform, we’re not going to break through in some of these elections,” California Rep. Ro Khanna said on the phone late Tuesday night. “When you try to target things to a lowest common denominator, you run the risk of not having an inspiring message.”
Follow the money
Other critics, many less preternaturally diplomatic than Khanna, were unsparing. Democracy for America Chair Jim Dean unburdened himself in a press release delivered soon after Ossoff’s loss was confirmed. But like the congressman, Dean zeroed in on the failures of the party’s high level strategists.
“Defeating Republicans in districts that they have traditionally held requires doing something drastically different than establishment Democrats have done before,” he said, listing among those priorities “heavily (investing) in direct voter contact to expand the electorate.”
Questions about the theories that guided how Ossoff and his campaign spent their windfall were a recurring theme.
In an email, Robert Becker, who ran Sen. Bernie Sanders campaign in Iowa (and later, as deputy national field director, helped author its most famous win, in Michigan), was openly disdainful of what he suggested had been wasteful party management.
“Well, seems we spent $30 million to get 48% in Georgia … and next to nothing to get 48% in South Carolina. One has to wonder what impact $30 million would have if it was directed to state Democratic parties instead of a gazillion TV ads,” he wrote. “Maybe try standing for something and investing in grassroots instead would be the lesson?”
Other progressive activists asked why the district had become such an obsession for Democrats. Yes, Clinton did well there. But the logic, they insisted, was faulty. She might have overperformed in areas that went for Romney, like Georgia’s sixth, but that was because her campaign targeted them — not because they are naturally ripe to shed the GOP.
The strategy recalled a now infamously misguided prediction put forth by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer ahead of the 2016 election, when he posited that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Whither the fixation on moderate Republicans?
Enter here a close cousin of Schumer’s theory, the “Panera Bread path.” Former top Clinton aide and Democratic strategist Brian Fallon, in a tweet on the night of the first round of voting in Georgia, held up the café casual dining franchise — typically located in comfortable suburban precincts — as a rough guide for where Democrats should dedicate their resources ahead of the 2018 midterms.
“Even if he doesn’t hit (50% and win outright) tonight, Ossoff is showing us the path to retaking the House,” Fallon wrote. “It runs through the Panera Breads of America.”
Progressives bristled, as much at the message as the messenger.
“We won’t defeat Trumpism by courting moderate Republicans in wealthy suburbs,” Max Berger, a co-founder of #AllOfUs, the millennial progressive group, told CNN. “Trumpism will be defeated by mobilizing voters who feel left behind — young people and working class people of all races — to take on the billionaires and the ruling class. The Democrat consultant class thinks a Panera strategy is their path back to power, but the left will no longer be led by those who offer no alternative.”
What the desired agenda looks like remains a rolling question. As the Sanders campaign slowly broke up, the activists and organizers who drove its success mostly scattered, seeking to grow the new coalitions brought together by the Vermont independent’s progressive populist platform.
The left’s turn?
Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, hit this vein in her post-election message.
“Ossoff and the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) missed an opportunity to make Republicans’ attack on health care the key issue, and instead attempted to portray Ossoff as a centrist,” she said in a statement, “focusing on cutting spending and coming out opposition to Medicare for All.”
It was hardly the “sweeping change,” Galland argued, “that the American people are clamoring for.”
The string of defeats, going back to the 2014 midterms, provides further evidence, progressives and leftists say, that — without a uniquely talented group of candidates on the horizon — the party will no longer be able to paper over decades of either bland or, in the case of trade deals like NAFTA, destructive economic policies.
“I don’t think many (national Democrats) have the charisma of Obama, the weird likability and material language of Sanders, or the conniving ability of Harry Reid,” said Felix Biederman, co-host of the “Chapo Trap House” podcast. “It’s time for them to stop ratf—–g even the hint of a left in their party and activate those voters who usually don’t vote.”