There will not be a Blue Wave. Democrats’ goal in the Senate has devolved to limiting losses, not gaining seats, and they are unlikely to take control of the House. Even the Washington Post and New York Times are hedging their bets. Here’s why.
Midterms are always a question of whether people have a reason to risk change. Historically, incumbents retain their seats over 80% of the time. Recent flips of the House were driven by large-scale demands for change, including concern over the Iraq War and Obamacare, that reached deeper and more broadly into society than this year’s casus belli, Trump Rage. History does show midterm elections generally bring some losses to the ruling party. But all that matters this year is a 24 seat Democratic gain. Anything less — a Blue Dribble — and the House stays in Republican hands subject to party-line votes. Leaving aside everything else, those are rough odds mathematically.
But the “everything else” part matters a lot. What is the impetus for an Ohioian who went Republican last round, and maybe before that except Obama in 2008, to take another chance on change?
Though healthcare is the number one issue of concern, there has been little new offered by Democratic candidates. Republicans failed to dilute Obamacare. Things today are basically at status quo November 2016 when candidate Clinton pronounced the system about the best we could hope for and called Bernie Sanders’ general ideas as now roughly endorsed by many Democrats too expensive. Democrats’ current change of heart seems driven more by poor election results than policy stance, so are they to be trusted? Elizabeth Warren says she took her DNA test to restore trust in government, so there’s that.
People are instead supposed to vote for “Medicare for All,” though please, please don’t ask for details, or how it will be paid for, or what the massive insurance industry Obama allowed to stay in control of the system and now subsidized by the government will have to say about it. Otherwise there are few drivers of change. The economy is doing well. Nobody seems happy with immigration or guns, but as for new Democratic ideas, well there is that the one guy with the ponytail yelling abolish ICE.
The headlines leading up to the midterms are instead a Kavanaugh hangover (with mumbles still about impeaching him), something bad with the Saudis that does not affect Americans, the Twitter Outrage O’ the Day, the still-unemployed Colin Kaepernick, those transgender bathrooms that keep progressives up sobbing at night, and the crazies, who now include the once-stolid Carl Bernstein and Paul Krugman shouting like so many Chicken Littles fascism, dictatorship, and mandatory Nazi cosplay are imminent. And what happened to those wars with Iran, China, North Korea, and maybe Canada Trump was supposed to have started by now? Anybody heard from Mueller recently? It seems like a lot until you realize in reality it isn’t much of anything.
And even if you, say, did share concerns over Kavanaugh, you were required to throw away the centuries-old cornerstone concept of innocent until proven guilty or be a gender traitor. Immigration? Sensible talk must wait until concentration camps for infants are torn down. Gun reform? You either are complicit in child murder or a Parkland Kidlet. Same for Maxine Waters encouraging people to scream at Republicans while they eat dinner, not a way to open the tent to more swing voters in places like Minnesota or the Dakotas.
The Democrats have left precious little middle ground on important issues, and if they want Republicans and independents to shift from their previous voting stance, they need some middle ground for those people to take a stand on. Who wants to join a party when you’re not invited?
The only driver of change seems to be the Democrat fantasy voters want a do-over on the 2016 election. The problem is a Fox poll shows “rein in Trump” of significant concern to only 10% of voters. An MSNBC poll has nothing of the sort, with the serious issues of healthcare and immigration instead topping a list of voter concerns.
Polls do consistently show white, educated women favoring Democrats (but even that is only a sort-of-OKish 61%; some 30 million women voted for Trump.) Not much of a change from 2016, where the same feisty, angry, fierce, polarized group failed to elect Hillary. Democrats are still apparently unaware there are few House districts where white, educated women are the majority, and where their husbands don’t vote. Meanwhile, Rahm Emmanuel imagines there’s a new block of voters to turn the tide — “Mea culpas,” those who did not vote in 2016 and feel remorse over the resulting Trump win.
The whole midterm hopey-changey thing instead depends on producing historical turnouts from millennials and blacks loosely attached to the electorate, though there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan for that other than Social Media! and having the undead Hillary proclaim an end to political civility until her side finally wins an election. Meanwhile, Republicans rely on demographics that do turn out, in numbers such that Democrats need to motivate four millennials to actually produce one vote, while Republicans will likely get more than three for four. Actual turnout for age 65+ is 82%, dropping to 26% for those 18–29.
There are other factors. Trump’s overall approval rating continues to rise, a bad sign for a Democrat party framing the midterms as a referendum on him. Some 75% of Republicans want their congressional candidates to fall in line with Trump’s agenda. Republicans vote in midterms in higher percentages than Democrats. A group Democrats magically hoped would support them because they are not white, “Hispanics,” apparently don’t see themselves that way.
Depending on people who don’t vote, Democrats run the risk of internalizing losses. There are too many reasons to lose again already teed up: If it’s not the Russians, it’s voter suppression, gerrymandering, racism or the proportional representation system people just seemed to notice 230 years after it started. They mean to anger people into voting, but it can easily have the opposite effect.
The deck is stacked against us can seem disheartening to voters, and may leave as many sitting home drinking as heading out to the revolution. Already a quarter of millennial students found the 2016 election so traumatic they claim to have PTSD. In psychology, this is known as “catastrophizing,” driving yourself into depression envisioning ridiculous outcomes beyond even a real-world worst case scenario. It can lead to suicide. It’s becoming the core Democratic strategy for the midterms.
Many millennials seem to believe all they have to do is retweet hashtags, sign online petitions, and protest on school days. It created Beto mania, but it didn’t defeat Kavanaugh. This result is a black wave of false hope when social media driven movements fail to cross over into the real world, the appearance of a novel, seemingly authentic movement/moment creating the illusion of action and change. See, for example, the current progressive superhero Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose victory was replacing a Democrat with a Democrat, all based on a 13% turnout, only about 27k people from a densely populated district caught sleeping through a primary. A trick play that only works once.
The Democratic party is held back most of all by mistaking an exception for a trend. About a year ago my dog came upon a full box lunch left on the sidewalk. She gulped it down before some sorry construction worker came back, and ever since she stops at that spot, certain one of these days there will be another meal waiting. The year 2008 was historic in American politics, when a near 100% desire for change following an exhausting eight years of Bush drove record turnouts in front of one of the best campaigning politicians since the Greeks invented democracy. The real lessons for the future were missed in the weaker victory over a mediocre opponent in 2012.
Obama could have been FDR. He could have gotten a real healthcare solution but settled for the expedient. He could have saved middle class homes with a New Deal-style mortgage bailout, dramatically reducing economic inequality, but further enriched the One Percent instead. He could have pulled out of Bush’s Middle East mess but instead gave us Iraq War 3.0, and the humanitarian disasters of Syria, Libya, and Yemen. He failed at change, and those swing voters from 2008 know it, even if Democrats now try to push the Obama years as ones of social justice aplenty as a way of countering what they naively think matters most to most people about Trump.
Unless and until Democrats recognize their failures as most Americans lived them and offer change that might happen on the things that really matter, no Blue Wave in 2018. And don’t ask about the Red Undertow of 2020.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from Federal employment and Twitter.