Democrats Lose When They Talk About Nothing

Jon OssoffOssoff, like so many losing Democratic candidates over the years, was brought down fundamentally by arguments grounded in identity politics.

Karen Handel didn’t argue that the Republican Party’s healthcare bill is a good idea (it’s very unpopular) or that tax cuts for millionaires should be the country’s top economic priority (another policy that polls dismally). Instead, her campaign and its allies buried Ossoff under a pile of what basically amounts to nonsense — stuff about Kathy Griffin, stuff about Samuel L Jackson, stuff about his home being just over the district line, stuff about him having raised money from out of state — lumped together under the broad heading that he’s an “outsider.”

Much of this was unfair or ridiculous. And the stuff that wasn’t unfair — like the location of his home — is honestly pretty silly. None of this has anything to do with the lives of actual people living in the suburbs of Atlanta or anywhere else.

Ossoff’s team was aware, of course, that the district is not accustomed to voting for Democrats and that he was vulnerable to this kind of attack. They attempted to counter this move by positioning Ossoff as blandly as possible — just a kind of nice guy who doesn’t like Donald Trump — and dissociating him from any hard-edged ideas or themes. It’s a strategy that makes a certain amount of sense, but it also makes it hard to mobilize potential supporters. And by lowering the concrete stakes in the election, it also makes it easier for trivial and pseudo-issues to end up dominating in the end…

Ossoff’s effort to stay bland and inoffensive let hazy personal and culture war issues dominate the campaign — and even in a relatively weak Trump district, that was still a winning formula for Republicans…

If your opponents are unpopular enough, it’s certainly possible to win elections this way. But especially for the party that has a more difficult time inspiring its supporters to turn out to vote, that’s an ominous sign. Right now on healthcare and many other issues, Democrats suffer from a cacophony of white papers and a paucity of unity around any kind of vision or story they want to paint of what is wrong with America today and what is the better country they want to build for the future. And until they do, they’re going to struggle to mobilize supporters in the way they need to win tough races.

–Matt Yglesias
Jon Ossoff’s Georgia Special Election Loss Shows Democrats Could Use a Substantive Agenda

2 thoughts on “Democrats Lose When They Talk About Nothing

  1. People always read too much into these things. Ossoff and Parnell did far better than demographics and history say they should, but they still came up short. Nothing is unexpected, yet everyone will use it to reinforce their own priors. I don’t think anything will be gained by dozens of hot takes about how “they would win if only they listened to me!”

    • Fair enough. Yet the Democratic Party has been shrieking in fear for 25 years that any candidate who advocates, I dunno, actual benefits for lower-class voters (and who seems like they might actually try to get such benefits into law — the Clintons and Obamas spoke a good game, while fighting hardest for corporate trade deals) is inevitably electoral poison. If this calculation resulted in huge voting victories, it’d have some point. It’s not, and hasn’t for a long time.

      I wouldn’t read too much into this, either. I’m with you on that. But I am concerned that the Dems are becoming more resigned to losing, and more concerned about maintaining positions of influence in the party structure than they are actually fighting for positive legislation. There was a sensible reason for the party establishment to back Clinton over Sanders — she had bigger name recognition and a longer track record of engaging with groups outside of Vermont. The Dems taking a dump on special elections in Kansas and Montana, while pouring gazoodles of money into this utter non-entity from the suburbs, does concern me. Appealing solely to middle-class office-job voters is not a viable future for a leftist party. Yet it’s spookily starting to seem like that’s the last idea Democrats have.

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