A debate’s broken out among Democrats about the right strategy for 2018.
Honestly, it’s the wrong debate.
One side argues we should be focused on President Trump’s failures—a target-rich environment.
He’s performed “about faces” on scores of key policy positions. He’s failed to focus on what he claimed were his priorities and failed to make progress on issues he’s attempted to tackle. He and his campaign are beset by conflicts of interest and potential criminal liability. He’s alienated our allies, foolishly cozied up to adversaries and talked tough while carrying no sticks in dealing with enemies.
Chaos envelops his White House, disarray is the norm and incompetence reigns.
Opponents of this approach note it didn’t work for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and ask why we would expect it to work in 2018.
They argue instead that Democrats need to focus on a positive economic agenda. That’s what we didn’t get across clearly in 2016, they maintain, and it’s what we need to make clear in 2018.
Unfortunately, both sides in this debate ignore the evidence and the different roles played by different participants in the process.
The good news is they are both right.
First the evidence.
The historical record is crystal clear: low Presidential approval costs a president’s party seats in the midterm.
In 2006, George Bush suffered from a poor 37 percent job approval rating — about where Trump is today — and lost 30 House seats, along with control of the chamber. Bill Clinton lost 52 seats with an approval rating in the 40s.
On average, presidents with approval below 50 percent have lost over 30 seats.
So, from a political point of view, holding down President Trump’s approval rating ought to be a key objective.
Moreover, Trump is in far worse shape today, on almost every indicator, than he was going into the 2016 election.
Keeping the president’s failing and flailing at the forefront of public attention is a role well-suited for the party and its congressional wing.
But individual candidates need to do much more than simply attack the president. They need a platform on which to run.
After all, few of their opponents are really Trump-like. Oh, they support his polices, voting to strip over 20 million people of their health insurance, voting to end protections for those with pre-existing conditions and voting for an age tax, but few suffer from acute narcissism or got into bed with the Russians.
And individual Democrats are unlikely to generate support unless voters think our candidates understand their problems, share their values and aim to help them in some meaningful way.
The candidates’ role is to burnish their own images, while making clear just how bad their individual opponents are.
National parties are ill-suited for that role. Voters tend to think their member is “different,” so merely attacking the GOP Congress doesn’t solve the problem.
My own experience with these differing roles dates back to my first House race in 1982. When Congressional Quarterly published a list of 125 competitive races, we weren’t on it. Nonetheless we eked out an upset victory.
Despite his big 1980 win, President Reagan wasn’t so popular. His economic policies were failing and his approval rating stood at 42 percent. The GOP lost 26 seats that year, but it could have been more.
Too many candidates followed the national path, attacking the president for “Reaganomics.”
These Democrats weren’t actually running against the president whose problematic approval rating created the possibility for their victory, but didn’t seal it.
Instead, we attacked our opponent for his specific votes that hurt people — e.g. cutting Social Security.
We understood our role and we played it, while others played the wrong part in that years’ electoral drama and lost.
Instead of debating the relative merits of differing approaches, Democrats need to understand different actors need to play different roles to ensure our party machine is firing on all cylinders.
Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years.