The era of either political party surviving a tough cycle by localizing elections and grinding victories out race by race through good targeting or clever local ads or tactics is long over, and the Democratic Party needs to finally face that fact. If Democrats don’t have a national story to tell about why they are Democrats and why voters should vote for them — yes, even in red states — they will lose. What Democrats failed to get in 2014 is that every election is now a national election, and the party with the stronger narrative — the party on offense, not defense — will win most of the competitive races. You have to go back 18 years to the 1996 election, when Bill Clinton was triangulating and before the advent of the modern era of hyper-partisan politics, to find an election where one party did not win most of the closest races. It happened for Democrats in 1998, 2000 (ironically, Gore’s victory in the popular vote was part of an overall Democratic trend that year in other races), 2006, 2008, and 2012; and for Republicans in 1994, 2002, 2004, and 2010. And it happened again big time this year — most of those too-close-to -call Senate and governor races going into yesterday went Republican.
You don’t win elections with a depressed and discouraged base, and you don’t win elections without a narrative that explains to voters why we you should win. Democrats failed on both scores. What my party needs to learn is that our candidates need to tell voters why they have a D behind their name on the ballot, and our entire party — candidates, top elected officials, Democratically-aligned organizations, the grassroots and Netroots — needs to have a unified story about what the election is about.
And here’s the thing: Good stories have both a villain and a hero who overcomes the villain. It can’t be a villain-less story about how we all just need to all work together in bipartisan fashion, and it can’t be a hero-less story that is all negative about the Republicans either. It has to be both: In red states, in tough elections, voters who are wary of the Democratic party will not be moved by the Democrats saying they are not Obama. In order to embrace the Democratic candidate, they need to understand why that candidate is a Democrat. If it is because you want to fight for a higher minimum wage, more and lower-cost student loans, increasing Social Security benefits, and taking on big-money special interests like Wall Street and the Koch brothers, that is something voters will embrace. If it is because you are not Obama and the Republican is awful, that don’t work so well.
National Democrats did not want to nationalize this election or tell a national story because Obama was unpopular and most of the swing Senate races were in red states. But that is just the kind of election where you need a national narrative to lift the Democratic story up and mobilize base voters. We should have crafted a message around what this election was about. It should have had elements of a strong economic agenda for hard-pressed women and young voters; it should have painted a picture of the agenda of the Koch brothers and the other big money special interests trying to buy the election on the other side. And you know what else: It should have included a story about the big things the Democrats are doing to help people, all the things I talked about above but also including immigration reform.
Looking at the cratered numbers for people like Pryor and Grimes who spoke against the executive order and got no more old white folks voting for them as a result, I woke up this morning convinced that one of the biggest mistakes of this election was Obama’s failure to do the immigration executive order before the election. Republicans would have screamed bloody murder, which would have gotten a more fired up reaction from our base; and it would have been a jolt of energy not just to Hispanics but to young people and other elements of the Rising American Electorate that pollsters like Stan Greenberg are so focused on.
Instead of a jolt of energy, what Democratic voters got instead was a dose of depression. Look at Alison Grimes: When she was running populist ads against the Koch brothers and bringing Elizabeth Warren to the state to fire up the troops, she was right in the game, in a dead heat against McConnell. When she refused to say who she voted for in 2012, and then ran a right wing immigration ad, her numbers deflated like a flat tire, and she ended up getting crushed.
I am not naive about how much of a drag Obama’s unpopularity was for Democratic candidates this year, and I understand the need to do some distancing on specific issues. But if your message as a Democrat consists almost entirely of (a) I am not Obama, and (b) the Republicans suck, it is not enough to motivate anyone to vote for you, or vote in general. Democrats in all these tough states could have picked and chosen some issues to disagree with Obama on (I certainly have a list), but they still needed to tell voters a compelling story about why they should vote for a Democrat, a story about fighting for middle and low income folks and taking on the big money trying to take over our country.
What Democrats desperately needed to do in this election was to raise their message game, to focus on a bigger story about what is going in America in 2014. The big story that my organization helped to break about the Koch brothers’ secret conference that McConnell and other top Republicans spoke at was a classic example. Democrats in their ads responding to that story focused on the most salacious and outrageous quotes from that conference, which drew attention and wasn’t a bad place to start. But they mostly didn’t tell the rest of the story, about the shared Koch/Republican agenda of a nation without the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare, student loans, environmental laws or Wall Street oversight — an agenda Mitch MCConnell said he was “inspired” by. If Democrats around the country had told a bigger story about what the election was about, that kind of far right agenda vs. Democrats battling for a higher minimum wage and higher Social Security benefits, instead of spending so many of their ad dollars reminding voters that their name wasn’t Obama, this would have been a different election.
As to what happens next? I hate losing; it is horrible. And the damage the Republicans can do with their increased power will be bad. But I look forward to fighting the good fight in the next two years. I remember the joy I took in 1995 after Republicans swept into power and Gingrich became Speaker, when I helped organize the fight to save the school lunch program and we turned Newt’s arrogance against himself and scored a major victory that stopped the Contract With America momentum cold. I remember with glee the Social Security privatization fight in 2005 after we lost a horrible re-election with Bush in 2004, and Karl Rove was speaking confidently of a permanent Republican majority. We destroyed them on that fight, and took the momentum into 2006 to win sweeping victories and take control of both the House and Senate. After the 2010 election debacle, we stopped the Ryan budget in its tracks in 2011, and turned Romney’s hubris into ashes in 2012. So I am eager. I am excited about the fight ahead. Just because we lost an election does not mean we will lose on the issue fights of the next two years.
What Democrats need to do, as my friend Bob Creamer likes to say, is to listen to our mothers and stand up straight. We need to confidently tell our story of two agendas: the Koch/McConnell agenda of a government that does nothing for the 99 percent and everything for the 1 percent, and our agenda of expanding the middle class and taking on the big money special interests that tilt the playing field in their favor. We need to cut out this goofy defensiveness and tell people why we are proud to be Democrats. If do all that, we will come roaring back and win big time in 2016.