Donald Trump is arguably the most disliked president in the history of modern polling, according to Five-Thirty-Eight. Haphazard, mean-spirited (even by Trump’s own admission) healthcare proposals, blatantly racist travel bans, and the growing Russia scandal leave Trump in a very weak bargaining position with respect to Congress. Or perhaps the intention is to distract with whatever vulgar offering Trump and Bannon provide on Twitter away from the Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell plot to eviscerate social programs and keep the rich rolling in the fat, as suggested by Noam Chomsky in an interview with Truthout. Whatever the Republican strategy (or lack thereof), Trump’s extreme unpopularity has heralded close calls for Democrats in a few of the four special elections held this year which would otherwise be very strongly Republican. Yet their strategy is broken.
Jon Ossoff very slightly lost a heavily Republican district very close to where I lived some years ago, and his defeat has predictably emboldened the hopelessly flat Trump to proclaim a landside 100%+ mandate for himself and his stupefying agenda. More appropriately, the closeness of the race in Kansas, to which we’ll return shortly, demonstrates profound dissatisfaction with Trump, something no doubt imperceptible to the mad king in his choking fog of self-congratulatory reverie. Georgia’s is the fourth special election in the months since Trump has become president, and this is the only one the Democratic National Committee cared to notice. Vox noted rather cleverly that Ossoff’s loss occurred because of a lack of substantive policies, permitting sleazy, establishment career politician Karen Handel to smear him on where he lives, who’s funding him (mostly small-time donors through Act Blue), and the like, despite his being raised in the district and her not and her receiving heavy donations from the corporate Republican machine. The issue becomes, rather strikingly, the simple fact that Ossoff, like Obama in 2008, ran only on the “I’m not Trump/Bush and never will be,” rather than actually offering strong policy. One can visit Obama’s 2008 campaign website to find rather scant policy content, mostly platitudes about changing politics and rhetoric. Obama, unlike Ossoff, won because of the previous increasingly frustrating years with warmongering liar Bush in charge, and that McCain, a fresh(ish) departure from Bush, was probably unelectable with Sarah Palin on the ticket. Of course, if Obama had run for the House against McCain and Palin, or McCain and a gorilla for that matter, in Georgia’s sixth district in 2008, he would have walked away with a striking defeat.
The other, and perhaps most significant issue in many urban/suburban districts is a systematic, widespread campaign of voter suppression, long documented by investigative journalist Greg Palast of Democracy Now and of course in outstanding work by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot. These two analysts unearth mountains of evidence of persistent voter suppression in the United States against minorities, quite remarkable in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in that they very likely cost the Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively, the electoral college. Forms the suppression take are
- extreme gerrymandering to weaken or dilute minority districts, such as a drawing ruled unconstitutional in North Carolina in May and likely unconstitutional in Wisconsin soon (interestingly the defense before the court was “partisan advantage”, a euphemism for racial discrimination, much like the role the term “states’ rights” has served with respect to various forms of local tyranny),
- purging voter rolls because of fuzzy matching of voter names with those of convicted felons,
- deceptive polling location announcements,
- dilapidated voting machinery,
- insufficient staffing, paper ballots, or machines,
- early polling place closures,
- legal yet highly unethical barriers to voter registration (see Kasdan below),
- persecution of volunteer registrars, a widespread form of suppression documented by Diana Kasdan of the Brennan Center for Justice (an instructive read, as it turns out many state and local governments prefer for voting drives not to happen),
and so on. Earlier, more hostile tactics included barring entry of African Americans to polling places at gun point, unbelievably difficult literacy tests, violence, murder, intimidation, and the list goes on and on.
Returning to strategy, the fundamental issue is that the DNC seems to think the pretty people with Hollywood money and empty platitudes will persuade heartlanders and southerners to pull the lever for a tepid return to establishment politics. Despite Trump’s shriveling popularity, it seems unlikely that they’ll abandon him for an outsider with a shallow platform. And though the Citizens United decision makes the Republican attack ads about outside money all the more absurd and hypocritical (after all they happily gobble up contributions from outside corporations and tycoons, as Think Progress has pointed out), public relations experts in the Republican camp certainly know how to twist that knife by portraying Ossoff as a “San Francisco candidate.” The DNC’s push to moderate Ossoff’s position essentially tied his hands with respect to combating the unremitting propaganda machine, as he’s left largely silent on policy while being forced to defend its outlandish accusations.
The DNC had an excellent opportunity in filling the seat left by CIA director Mike Pompeo in Kansas : James Thompson lost to Ron Estes by four points in a district Trump carried by 27 points, despite virtually no underwriting from the DNC but a strong, populist anti-establishment message. If there was an opportunity to be had, this was it. Kansas folk likely felt at home with Thompson, a local civil rights attorney with deep community ties. Ossoff’s defeat, by contrast, was by a larger percentage margin than Hillary Clinton’s in that same district.
The DNC continues to favor centrist, establishment figures, neither of which Trump’s working class base wants. Bernie’s ascendancy and Trump’s slight electoral victory last year indicated a strong preference among younger and working class people from both parties for an attempt from outside the Beltway.
Though Trump is extremely unpopular, bland establishment shills won’t tempt moderate Republicans, even if they dislike Trump. Though Trump may compulsively pat himself on the back for the victories, they’re actually quite revealing of his unpopularity, as Republicans have atypically only slightly held their seats with a new Republican president in office; Democratic leadership has yet to discover how to leverage it. True upstarts who challenge politics as usual with authentic advocacy for constituency is much more likely to convince people to abandon party and energize activists; as usual, they begin locally.
We’ll return to Cuba next time.