As satisfying as the midterm election results may be to Democrats, for the next two years Donald Trump will have the political upper hand. Vote totals, the swing in the House of the Representatives, and gains made in governors’ mansions and statehouses nationwide will not diminish the advantages he has as an incumbent running for reelection; nor do these accomplishments solve the biggest challenges facing the Democratic Party as it prepares for 2020.
For the next 18 months, the President will stand alone on the national stage effectively unchallenged by a Democrat who can command the same coverage. He will own the bully pulpit and, as we have seen, he will not hesitate to turn up the volume to 11 to advance his latest cause, pummel his latest scapegoat or peddle his latest lies.
The House of Representatives may serve as a check, and Speaker-presumptive Nancy Pelosi is an often underestimated political warrior who has deservedly had extraordinary success. But Trump is not only catnip for the media. His party is disciplined, and Republicans work together to stay on message in ways that will be very challenging for a Democratic Party that will likely be riven by perhaps two dozen candidacies for the party’s presidential nomination as well as enduring factionalism. But unless the party recognizes the urgency of speaking with a single voice and of moving together as one on key issues, by the time a Democratic presidential nominee is selected in the summer of 2020, Trump will have further consolidated his based and positioned himself for a reelection victory.
The leaders of the Democratic Party must come together now, not in 20 months. They must agree on a clear, simple message that all in the party not only can get behind but one that they will actively pledge to support. Individual candidates can make the cases for themselves while nonetheless supporting this message. After all, no trait will be more important to a Democratic challenger to Trump, or for that matter to the American people after a fractious four years, than a candidate’s ability to be a unifier—first for the party, then for the country.
In the end, there is of course only one measure for whether the Democrats are successful in two years. That is winning. Winning, as Vince Lombardi said, is not everything. It is the only thing. As we have seen in the recent past, you can offer a more accomplished candidate, more thoughtful policy papers, better polling results, a higher powered campaign team, even more money, and you can still lose.
Trump knows this. And he has demonstrated that in America today what matters are only two things, the messenger and the message. The messenger is of course his or her own message, sending gut-level signals to voters about whether they will be effective, whether they are insiders or outsiders, whether they have the intangibles voters seek in a leader. And for now, it has to be acknowledged, the Democrats will not be able to settle on one messenger until the convention in the summer of 2020.
That leaves the message. As Trump has shown, it must be crisp, and again, it must connect with voters viscerally. Details are a distraction. Voters believe strong leaders will find a way to make their plans happen. Democrats must agree now, not wait for a nominee to be chosen, on no more than four or five key points that communicate why the Democratic Party is different, why it is better for the average American, why it will meaningfully improve the lives of Democrats and independents and Republicans who might vote for a Democrat.
Each of these points needs to not only address an area of vital importance and broad resonance—economic security, fighting inequality and a rigged system, inclusion—but taken together, they must also communicate core ideas. For example, that there are two parties in America: the GOP, a party of Wall Street and the Democrats, historically and at their very core, a party for Main Street. The GOP serves at the pleasure of big business and big money and increasingly with the aid of extremist groups. The Democratic Party exists as it always has to fight for the average citizen—not just to level the playing field, but to realize the promise of a better future.
It will be tempting to make the 2020 campaign another referendum about Trump—now even more so given how badly he and those he supported did in 2018. And there is no getting around the fact that Trump has been a disaster as a President. His hatefulness and contempt for the rule of law, as well as his corruption and fondness for autocrats and white supremacists have marked him as an odious and untrustworthy figure on the world stage and at home. His policies, from his attack on our health-care system to his tax cuts that have benefited the rich and no one else, have been failures despite his lies to the contrary. What economic growth there has been is a continuation of the Obama boom at a slower pace. And while employment numbers seem good they mask the huge number of people who are out of the workforce, the massive numbers in low-paying jobs, or those who have to work more than one job to make ends meet, and the outrageous levels of inequality in our system.
But to win, the Democrats must have a positive agenda, real ideas, concrete proposals. Good ideas already exist, and the goal of Democratic leaders must be to find some that all in the party can coalesce around now. Ensuring health care for all. Creating good, high quality, higher paying jobs and workers with the twenty-first century skills employers demand. Combatting inequality with real tax relief for the middle class and by creating paths that enable deserving students to get higher education without creating massive debt burdens, perhaps offering education in exchange for national service. Secure, sufficient pensions and retirement savings systems for all. Infrastructure and investment incentives that bring the promise of the twenty-first century economy to every corner of American society. Security through restored and reinvigorated international alliances.
Pick three. Pick four. Pick five. Keep them simple. Fight to stay focused on them. Pick the ones that resonate most across the entire party and in every part of the country. Keep winning in mind. Find the discipline to stick to this unified and unifying message and, where possible, select spokespeople who can step to the center of the stage and command it so that Trump does not have it to himself.
But recognize that if winning is the goal, the campaign for 2020 has already begun and that the President has many advantages on his side. That is why it is urgent that the above process of zeroing in on ideas, committing to them, and delivering them in a way that offers a clear alternative to a dangerous, damaging presidency begins now. Until the Democrats have one person to deliver this message, then all their leaders must. The stakes are too high. The risks of failure are too great. The costs of distraction and division are too evident from our recent past. 2020 can be a turning point in American history. Whether it is for better or for worse will depend on decisions and actions taken by the leaders of the Democratic Party right now.