October 11, 2018
With less than a month until Election Day, it’s time for Democrats to hunker down and get serious about their midterm messaging. In the dispiriting aftermath of the recent Supreme Court confirmation circus, this means taking a couple of deep breaths, not flipping out over the Republicans’ purported “Kavanaugh bounce” (which might be more of a hiccup) and focusing on a few key issues that resonate with a broad swath of voters.
Republicans are twitchy about their electoral prospects. They know that midterm elections tend to go poorly for the party that holds the White House, just as they are aware that President Trump, while beloved by the base, has a popularity problem among the wider electorate. Party leaders are going all in with the culture-warring and scaremongering, looking to drive their voters to the polls with the specter of a wild-eyed, rage-filled Democratic “mob” hellbent on destroying the Republic. In a Wednesday op-ed in USA Today, the president himself indulged in some light red-baiting, claiming that “radical socialist” Democrats want to turn America into Venezuela. The entire screed was classic Trump: unhinged, breathtakingly dishonest and aimed squarely at making the opposition’s head explode.
As part of this base-stroking, Republicans are eager to keep the debate raging over their freshly confirmed, ultra-polarizing Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh. The brutal fight to seat Justice Kavanaugh, which morphed from an inquiry into the judicial fitness of one man into a culture-war cage match over women’s rights and shifting sexual mores, electrified many left-leaning voters. But it also stirred up die-hard Republicans, potentially endangering the “enthusiasm gap” Democrats had been enjoying.
With Justice Kavanaugh now safely tucked into his lifetime appointment, there’s much less cause for conservatives to stay angry. And even if they’re stewing today, or next weekend, three-plus weeks is an eternity in politics — all the more in a political climate dominated by this endlessly dramatic White House. Thus, we see prominent Republicans, including the Senate majority leader and the head of the Republican National Committee, peddling the idea that if Democrats gain power in Congress, one of their top priorities will be to impeach Justice Kavanaugh. No matter that this claim has no factual basis — it plays perfectly to the Republican base’s enduring sense of victimhood.
Which is why Democrats must resist the urge to follow Republicans down this spider hole, or that of any radioactive topic designed to inflame partisan passions.
Thankfully, Democratic leaders in both chambers of Congress seem to recognize this and are encouraging their members to pivot toward issues aimed at bringing more people into the fold. In the Senate, they have said they will fixate on health care in the coming weeks, with special attention paid to protections for people with pre-existing conditions. This is a wildly popular provision of Obamacare, and one on which Republicans know they are vulnerable. This explains why President Trump fibbed about having fulfilled a campaign vow to protect coverage for pre-existing conditions, when in reality his administration has refused to defend such protections. Every single Democratic candidate should be laboring to make sure that every single American voter knows this.
The day after the Kavanaugh confirmation vote, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, called on her members to pull themselves together — “DON’T AGONIZE, ORGANIZE” — and get busy selling voters on the party’s “For the People” agenda. In addition to cutting health care costs, Democrats pledge to focus on creating well-paying jobs through infrastructure investment and on tackling Washington corruption. The party ought to have a bit of fun with this last agenda item, given that polls have shown for months now that a strong majority of voters are favorably inclined toward congressional candidates who will provide a check on this White House.
So far, Democrats seem to be staying on point. A couple of lawmakers have called for the next Congress, presumably with Democratic control of the House, to revisit the allegations against Justice Kavanaugh. A handful of others have argued that, if it turns out that he lied to Congress, he should be impeached. Ms. Pelosi has swatted down such suggestions, declaring, “We are not about impeachment.”
None of this means that the masses of Americans rightly appalled by this Supreme Court fight, or any of Mr. Trump’s outrages, should simply swallow their pain and get over it. Outside groups and incensed individuals should be working to channel all that frustration and heartbreak into turning out voters next month.
But the truth is, voters repulsed by Mr. Trump and his congressional enablers are already fired up to turn out for Democrats. Thanks to an unforgiving Senate map, the party’s more daunting challenge this cycle is to persuade people in not-so-blue areas of the country to give it a second chance.
As such, candidates and lawmakers need to take a more strategic approach. Stick to a message with broad appeal. Discuss the Kavanaugh battle in the larger context of the need for a responsible legislative branch to hold this out-of-control executive branch accountable. And no talk of impeachment — for anyone.
The only way to get the attention of a Republican Party that has proved itself interested in nothing more than power is to take away that power. Until that happens, the rest is just noise.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: Democrats, Don’t Muck This One Up | Today’s Paper