A funny thing is happening to Democrats: Their lead in the generic congressional ballot is shrinking, down from healthy double digits last year to slightly more than six points now. To be sure, the Democrats are still favored to take the House, and the “intensity gap” still favors them, but overall the numbers are trending toward Republicans.
Why? One is tempted to respond with the Clinton-era admonition, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and leave it at that. But Democrats had larger leads last year even with wages rising and the economy growing. Nor can it be that President Trump has calmed down. He’s still tweeting. His White House is still full of drama. And each week still brings controversies that exhaust and exasperate everyone but his base.
So, I have a different theory. Democrats still haven’t fully learned the lessons of 2016: Be better and stop crying wolf.
Let’s take the second lesson first. All too many Democrats seem constitutionally incapable of mounting a proportionate response to the day’s news. Everything is a crisis, and the rhetoric is constantly pushed to the limits. It’s one thing to react with outrage when Trump equivocates after the Charlottesville terrorist attack and declares that there were fine people on both sides, or when he takes to Twitter to launch personal insults at “Little Rocket Man.” It’s another thing entirely to describe, as Nancy Pelosi did, a completely normal GOP tax plan as the worst bill ever to come out of the House. It’s another thing to claim that Americans will die if conventional Republican policies pass.
Democrats still haven’t understood the extent to which their constant over-the-top attacks on men such as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan inured the GOP public to further claims of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. So they go back to the same well, declaring that this time they really mean it, this time there really are racists on the loose.
Yes, both parties have a problem with proportionate response, as the GOP’s stunning overreaction to the so-called FISA-gate brouhaha illustrates, but the result is a kind of endless public screaming, an unmodulated howl that drowns out truth, equalizes the two sides, and renders nothing truly outrageous or disqualifying even as partisans try to claim that everything’s an emergency.
And that brings us to the first lesson: Be better. Talk to most Democrats, and they’re simply flabbergasted that so many Americans did not see Hillary Clinton as possessing the slightest character advantage over Donald Trump. And why would they? The differences often boiled down to style and manners. Trump’s blunt style bludgeoned the truth to death with a verbal hammer. Hillary’s sophistication sliced the truth to ribbons with a verbal scalpel. Either way, the truth died.
In reflecting on the impeachment battles of the Clinton administration, it strikes me that Republicans similarly failed to “be better.” Remember Newt’s affairs? Remember the shocking resignation of his successor, Bob Livingston, over an affair? There were voters who looked at the mess, concluded that both sides were dirty, and shrugged their way to the status quo.
Similarly, I’ve talked to any number of Trump supporters who look at the disgusting predators in Hollywood, the sexual-harassment scandals in Congress, and the pervnado in journalism and believe that progressives are corrupt, that they don’t truly care about character or sexual ethics. If you look at it that way, why would you as a Republican urge the GOP to unilaterally disarm? Why would you sacrifice policies and appointments to simply replace one set of hypocrites with another?
Moreover, the admonition to “be better” applies not just to character but also to policies. The Democratic party is charging left at breakneck speed. Any meaningful immigration enforcement is cast as racist. Likely Democratic presidential candidates are racing to embrace single-payer health care. Every meaningful Democratic constituency is now solidly progressive on identity-politics issues. In other words, moderate or swing voters have to swallow more and more extremism to cast a vote for a Democrat. They’re consistently making it harder for Americans to join their team. If the Democrats truly believe Trump is a unique threat, why can’t they moderate any of their policies? Why can’t they do anything meaningful to reach out to the center?
That’s why the fortunes of the party are at a 100-year low. That’s why Democrats can’t yet be completely sure that even an unpopular, divisive president will hand them control of the House. They have nowhere to go but up, yet they are the ones keeping themselves down.